The Obscure, the Charming and the Odd: Mark Pahlow's Guide to Seattle

The owner of Archie McPhee shares his favorite spots around town.

Mark Pahlow has made a career out of developing and selling quirky goods. While the company started as a wholesaler, the Wallingford retail store is a popular spot with locals and visitors alike. Walking into the Archie McPhee is walking into an explosion of pop culture, mixed with nostalgia and weirdness. Fittingly, Pahlow spoke with Where about finding inspiration, his favorite hidden gems for shopping and where he likes to spend a day.

What kind of store is Archie McPhee?

Archie McPhee is a cornucopia of a huge variety of wonderful, odd things and when I say huge, there are thousands and thousands of things. There are little bins and things that sell for—I think we have a few things for 2 cents, 5 cents, 10 cents, 15 cents: that’s almost unheard of in this day and age. It goes through a lot of different categories: Things for parties and costume items, toys and candy and weird things. Things for artists and inventors and scientists. Strange things for the kitchen and the household. There are some vintage things that we’ve collected we sell. There are overruns and closeouts. Lunchboxes and … If you go to the website, there’s a Google 360 image you can see, and you’ll kind of get the visual overwhelm of the variety of things.

How did the store start?

To go way back, as a kid I loved MAD magazine and I loved comic books and I loved rubber spiders that came in capsules in vending machines. These kinds of products fascinated me. I eventually got into the business of buying and selling these things. When I moved to Seattle in 1982, the property on Stone Way had a retail shop. The main thing I was doing was wholesaling to other stores. On a lark we opened the front … it was an immediate success. I didn’t really want to be a retailer. It kind of happened by accident. But Seattle loved it and its become the face of the company. Its grown and we moved from Stone Way over to Ballard; We were there 10 years. Then we moved back to Wallingford, where we are now.

Archie McPhee

What is the process for developing new products?

It's just continuous, 24/7 thinking about popular culture, what is interesting and awesome, and things that we like. I meet with a team of five people and we toss ideas around. Artists sketch up products … We move pretty fast.

Do you have a favorite item?

No, it kind of changes over time. There’s classic things like the rubber chicken, and then there are newer things that are amazaing, like this thing we call Handerpants—they’re like underpants for your hands. Recently we brought out a product we call Handicorn, basically it’s a horse head with hooves that you put on your fingers. You can turn your boring hand into a moving horse. Its kind of a derivative from this horse head mask that we promoted years ago when we made YouTube videos that went viral.

What about the most popular item with customers?

That’s sort of a moving target. Again, the Handicorn is really popular. We do a lot of bacon products. People say bacon is over with, but we sell a huge amount of bacon products. It just goes on and on, the bacon line.

Crazy cat lady is a theme we started. We made a figure of a lady in a kind of robe looking rather like … a crazy cat lady with lots of little cats around her. That’s an extremely popular gift to anyone that has more than three cats.

Bigfoot is a big thing for us. We have an action figure and a dress up bigfoot that we’ve been selling.

We’ve googly eyes that we started a few years ago and really promoted. People are sticking those on coffee cups and putting them everywhere.

The unicorn is a huge item. We have a unicorn mask, bandages—we have a lot of adhesive bandages. We have bacon and Edgar Allen Poe and Abraham Lincoln, a whole host of that sort of stuff. It’s pretty endless, what we do. And we just keep doing it.

Hiram M. Chittenden Locks

What is a must-see for visitors to Seattle?

I have to say Archie McPhee, of course. I think the coolest thing in Seattle are the Ballard locks. They’re free, though you may end up having to pay for parking. They’re just fascinating to see how the locks work and see all those people from all over the world. Then walk across and see the salmon, if you’re lucky, in the underground windows. There’s salt brine in the air. I think that’s the best free thing to do in Seattle.

The other thing that’s a great photo op is the Fremont Troll, which is such a goofy, goofy thing: to have this big concrete troll under the bridge holding on to a Volkswagen Beetle. I always take visitors to see it.

Any favorite hidden gems in the city?

My favorite store in Seattle is a store called the Nevertold Casket Company. That’s on Republican near 15th on Capitol Hill. It’s in an apartment building on the ground level, and this couple, who I’ve gotten to know, named Jack and Tiffany, have basically put out their collection of haunted things: it’s a lot of Victorian antiques, but they often have a lot to do with death and a way of life that is gone. They have a lot of things like taxidermy animals. I bought a large boar’s head there that I was charmed by. They have a lot of fascinating things like antique dental tools. Things they’ve personally collected. It feels like you’re in this living room. Everything has a story and they know the story, they know a lot about the materials and what these things are from 100 years ago. It’s not open very often. That’s my secret hidden gem.

Souvenir in Ballard, run by Curtis Steiner: It’s the epitome of taste. He designs a lot of his own jewelry and designs his own cards. He finds things: I bought a coconut that somebody spent 20 years making in a prison on the South Sea islands. He turned it to a fish. [Steiner] comes up with some extremely obscure objects of art. The Seattle Art Museum has had him curate some shows. He’s got this charming shop in old Ballard on Ballard Avenue. It's really an amazing place to find an aesthetically pleasing, beautiful gift for yourself.

In the ID, the Panama Hotel. It is a nice place to have a pot of tea after walking around the ID. It has a large glass window in the floor that looks down upon the personal possessions left behind and never claimed when Seattle Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II.

Salmon dish at Tilth

What are some favorite restaurants?

Tilth. Joule has a wonderful dish called Royal Beef. I found a new place I like in Ballard called Brimmer & Heeltap that is quite charming. The other wonderful brunch place for me is Din Tai Fung, which first opened in Bellevue and it is now opened in University Village. It is part of the original Din Tai Fung in Taipei, Taiwan. I’ve been going to Taipei every year since the 1980s. I would always go to Din Tai Fung. These people make these steamed dumplings that people come all over the world to eat. The Seattle one is not as good as Din Tai Fung in Taiwan. There, they have their own farms, raise their own chickens. Din Tai Fung has a juicy pork dumping that’s absolutely sublime. It’s one of my favorite things to do is go to that U Village location. I eat juice pork dumplings until I’m ready to explode. That’s my guilty pleasure.

Any favorite bars?

I do like the bartender at Lark, who makes a fabulous kamikaze. This Brimmer & Heeltap has this muddled green cocktail, I think it’s called a Greenlet. I generally like these designer cocktails that these top restaurants tend to produce.

Do you have a favorite museum?

Probably the Seattle Art Museum, but the one in Volunteer Park, which is still the thematically Asian one, because I have a huge fondness for Asian culture.

Any favorite day trips?

Every time I leave Seattle I realize how much I miss it and how much I like being here. I really like the city of Seattle; I’m a completely urban guy. I really enjoy it here. I know my limitations.

What makes this area special?

For me there’s just the kind of look and feel of the architecture, the layout, the vibe—there’s something that makes me feel at home here. Seattle tolerates and almost celebrates eccentricity. There are plenty of strange characters, and I love a strange character. I love to go to NYC to take taxis because I love to get into conversations with these people. I find that a lot in Seattle. This place draws people from all over. It’s an interesting kind of … kind of like what L.A. was for the country for a long time. All those jokes about they tipped America and all the nuts rolled into L.A. Some truth to Seattle, too. Wherever there’s that kind of energetic thing that occurs when you get people deliberately coming somewhere. I like the feel of the electricity and stuff happens here. That turns me on.

Archie McPhee's devil head

What is your fondest memory?

If I was to bend that toward the most wonderful memory, it was in the late ’90s when the store was in Ballard. We made a giant paper mache devil head that was about eight feet tall. It was red with wild satanic eyes and horns. We make these big things, back then we had a larger space. We were making it for Halloween. It was huge and the paint was rather smelly, and we set it just outside the back door in the parking lot to dry. When we went back a few hours later it was gone. It had been stolen. We were really surprised—people are pretty honest here. We started talking about it and the word got around.

A radio station heard about this thing and they started broadcasting: has anyone seen this giant devil head? People started phoning the radio station saying they’d seen it on the back of a truck heading across 520 toward the Eastside. There was this giant alert for this giant devil head. Eventually it was tracked to this house in Bellevue, [where the person] said they thought it was thrown out. There was something so charming about the absurd surge of interest of people all over Seattle for the Archie McPhee devil head. They looked for it, they talked about it, they found it, we got it back. You can still see it in the store.

What is your favorite vacation destination?

Italy. Particularly Venice and Florence.

Any spots at the top of your travel wish list?

I don’t think so, or I would’ve already done it. I’ve been a lot of places. I’ve been most everywhere in the world except some really obscure places. I really keep coming back to Italy as a place I would like to hang out and eat and drink. The culture and the setting and the pace and the vibe there is really my cup of tea. I’d just be thrilled to be able to revisit Italy, and other parts of Italy as well.

What item do you always pack when traveling?

Noise-blocking headphones.

Are you a window- or aisle-seat guy?

Aisle. I’m confined enough inside that giant steel tube flying through the sky.

Caviar at Lark

My Perfect Day

Start the morning with an enormous pot of coffee. Peet’s Major Dickason’s Blend. Work Twitter and Instagram and Tumblr for a few hours, where I get a lot of inspiration and ideas and amusement from all of that social media, particularly Tumblr. One of my favorite places to go is the International District. I’d probably start at Uwajimaya, which is one of my favorite stores. Every time I go, I like to find some weird bottle or jar that’s in a foreign language I don’t know, that’s something I don’t know what it is. I like to buy that and try to cook with whatever it is. I also always check out their meat department. One of the butchers makes sculptures out of round beef and the resulting artwork is a hoot.

I love walking around the ID. I’d go into the Kinokuniya Bookstore. They have a lot of Japanese products that are really inspirational. A lot of anime stuff that I really like to look at. I’d probably go to Mike’s Noodle House for some won ton soup. It’s on Maynard [Ave. S]. There’s a store called Kobo that has a branch on Capitol Hill that I’d have a look in because she has beautiful stuff.

There’s a weird fish store with aquariums in the ID [King’s Discus]. I like to look at weird fish and pets. It would recharge me because I’m a frustrated zoologist. I love the natural world. I might pick up a salted chicken at Kings’ Barbeque House [518 Sixth Ave. S].

Then I’d probably move on to my favorite place in Seattle, which is Lakeview Cemetery. I’d go by and see Bruce Lee’s grave and look at the things people left. All sorts of odd things are left as offerings on Bruce Lee’s grave. I just love walking around that cemetery because it’s an incredible history of Seattle, of immigration.

And then to top the whole thing off I’d meet a friend at my favorite restaurant, which is Lark. Have a cocktail and a beautiful meal. That’d be a good day for me. 

Margaret Martin
About the author