Woman Around Town: Barbara Isenberg—
Runs A Toy Company With A Heart

“ I wanted to have a first friend for my small son to bond with….the image of Christopher Robin dangling Winnie the Pooh danced in my head.” Barbara Isenberg

It all began with Albert, the Running Bear in a red hooded jogging suit. Barbara Isenberg was writing a freelance housewares column for The New York Times when she had her only child thirty-seven years ago. In search of an endearing playmate for her two-year-old son, she found only the expensive, inexpressive, realistic animals or cheap, stiff, promotional give-aways and decided to go into the business. Barbara felt there were no soft, endearing toys. She borrowed start-up money, solicited the help of a designer friend to realize her vision (a woman who still works with her), and established a relationship with a sales rep she’d met at a gift show. Managing the business out of her apartment, she continued a hands-on mom.

The little company found a factory on the Lower East Side making carnival toys stuffed with cotton/poly batting. “The squishiest material I could find in those days was the fleece out of which we made the track suit.” Much to her surprise, the rep quickly sold 2,000 bears mostly to a women’s catalog carrying athletic apparel. The factory never knew what hit it. Barbara went into partnership with her business-knowledgeable brother in Chicago. They still manufactured the costumes in New York, but the bears were cut in Connecticut, sent to Haiti to be sewn, and finished in Connecticut. This was before Asia became a one-stop-shop. You can imagine the logistical challenges. Now the toys are designed in the New York Studio in a loft overlooking the Flatiron District, but are made overseas and then shipped to their office warehouse in Chicago where sales and distribution take place.

As the bears were selling to adults, Barbara thought in terms of other adult products. “Somehow the name Douglas Bearbanks popped into my head.” Not for nothing had she been a writer. The V.I.B.s® were born (Very Important Bears) and with them chapter two. A piece in The New York Times about a Bear Exhibit she put together in Central Park mentioned they were being sold at Bloomingdale’s, and the product took off. Over the next ten years almost one hundred characters such as Amelia Bearhart, Scarlett O’Beara and Rhett Beartler (above), Carmen Bearanda, Anna Bearvlova, Albeart Einstein, Zsa Zsa Gabear, & Humphry Beargart, filled the specialty shelves of a new breed of catalogs and collectable stores as well as homes across the country. Her bears differentiated themselves by price point, personality, elaborate clothing and colors! The bears themselves, made in an “unfurry” velvet-like fabric, became red, blue, orange “…which was shocking to the bear world.” No one but Barbara thought they would sell, but the cheerful, well-made toys flew off shelves. Collectables took over the business.

Chapter three began with another singular vision: The VanderBear Family®: papa Cornelius, momma Alice, and the twins Fuzzy & Fluffy, followed the next year by baby Muffy®. “Muffy was an object of great detail and beauty.” Because papa Cornelius firmly believed that clothes make the bear, Muffy and family could be dressed for every occasion. Especially fond of adventure, celebrations and world travel, the VanderBears lived in style. A division was set up to handle the demand for outfits, accessories, furniture, watches, stationary, and figurines, none of which was licensed out. Barbara has always felt strongly about quality and brand control. Backpacks and a scrapbook didn’t sell because they were for children and Muffy, like her predecessors, had become a collectable. An international Muffy VanderBear® Fan Club was created. Entire Muffy departments sprang up in stores such as the prestigious F.A.O. Schwarz. Limited editions were manufactured: Muffy wearing a beautiful nightgown came packaged with a bed stacked with mattresses and the errant pea: The Princess and the Pea.

Then came the Godzilla-like phenomenon Beanie Babies, which swallowed the collectable market whole. “Stores were convinced to sell only those; they took up so much space we lost a lot of our small customers.” In the meantime, luckily, North American Bear had started producing soft, sweet toys (first friends) like Flatsos™ and Sleepyheads™, both still immensely popular. Chapter four added mobiles, dolls, “regular” teddies, small decorated blankets, and a large range of baby playthings. Hers was becoming the company Barbara had originally intended it to be. Never mass-market, they focused on specialty stores; small, loyal operations run by those who favor craftsmanship over the deal. New, subtler fabrics were found. Most currently used can be thrown into the washing machine, and machine dried.

Baby Cozies™ were designed. These small, flat, super soft velour security buddies with an animal head and paws, called “dou dous” in France, are a sort of a cross between a pint-sized Linus blanket and a stuffed animal. There were and are holiday items, like the perennial nutcracker figures, bags in the shapes of animals, topsy-turvy dolls, tooth fairy and pirate dolls. For boys, “who prefer funny stuff,” they created a Big Mouth Dinosaur whose stomach holds prehistoric surprises: a caveman, his club, a palm tree and a pterodactyl egg. This year there are Secret Pocket Capes™ (kid-sized) with hidden pockets and changeable insignias and (kid-sized) tutus with clear pockets for inserting flowers or other decoration.

Alternately, modern influences began to affect the line. “Young people want quirkier characters, less sweet faces, and/or a mix of color and pattern.” Herein lies the story of My Own Monsters™. Literal translations of monster drawings made by children of employees, Crazy Eyes, Ouchie, Yucky, Bumbido, Alie-n and others were fashioned to make friendly and comfortable what might have been fearful. A portion of these sales is donated to Global Action for Children: www. GlobalActionforChildren.org, an organization favored by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. My Own Monsters are among Dr. Toy’s 100 Best Children’s products.

Barbara introduces new product every season from newborn to collectable. She genuinely loves the business.

I asked whether she despaired of all the plastic, licensed and electronic toys.
“I try not to despair about anything. Everything has its time and place. My mother despaired at what we laughed about.”

I asked what the greatest change has been.
“Under three rarely changes, except for parent’s tastes. Perhaps the quirkiness factor. Older kids love The Ugly Doll. Our Everyday Monsters are younger and were created directly out of kid’s imaginations.”

I asked about the market size over time.
“I think people don’t want as much stuff as they did, which is healthy, but they do want good design.”

I asked about being green.
“Polyester is hyper-allergenic, it’s soft, it’s machine washable. We’re looking at recycled fleece and stuffing, but it’s still polyester. We are also considering organic, but it is more expensive and you can’t get really bright colors. People don’t seem to throw out our toys, they last a long time.”

North American Bear has integrity and traditional values. In an era of fast, flimsy, mass market items, their playthings continue to be sweet, fun, comforting, and quality made. No small feat. Barbara Isenberg has created a company with a heart. She’s still proud to be making first friends.

Attention Readers: Visit North American Bear at www.nabear.com and receive 10 percent off your order. Please use the code WEBAC to receive your discount.

Woman Around Town’s Six Questions

Favorite Place to Eat: Giorgio’s of Gramercy Park on 21st Street, Radiance Tea Room on 55th Street, Nougatine (the bar/restaurant of Jean Georges on Central Park West).
Favorite Place to Shop: It was Takashimaya, but now that it is closed, I like the Jill Sander shop inside Uniqlo in Soho, and Babette in Soho.
Favorite New York Sight: The Empire State Building lit up at night and the Flatiron Building (I see both of them from my window).
Favorite New York Moment: Watching the “Under the Street” entertainers near the Sixth Avenue Line escalator at the 34th Street subway station.
What You Love About New York: Just about everything—especially Central Park and the open sky above it at twilight.
What You Hate About New York: When the escalators in the subways don’t work and there is garbage and rats scurrying around the tracks. Everything above ground is ok.

About Alix Cohen (849 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of eight New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.