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The Great Beanie Baby Furor

'Our society doesn't value children as much as we'd like to believe," a friend told me recently. Her comment still resonates after several weeks of unsavory national news.

Not only do we fail to align our priorities with the needs of children, but we can't seem to leave our own adolescence behind. As if it weren't bad enough to have a president who's a dubious role model, there's also a nationwide network of adults who will literally shove children out of the way to grab ... Beanie Babies.

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When Beanie Babies first tumbled on the scene in 1994, I was mildly impressed. Nonviolent in theme and squishy to the touch, they looked harmless enough - especially compared with those menacing action figures on toy-store shelves. Even the most watchful parent couldn't object to stuffed polyester beanbags with names like Splash the Whale and Squealer the Pig.

Best of all, they were a mere $5 a pop. A hard-working eight-year-old could reach into his piggy bank and rustle up enough allowance to buy a new one for his collection. That was the whole idea - or so I thought.

Today, Beanie Babies are an "investment." Retailers can't keep the critters in stock and are hiking prices accordingly. Ty Inc., the Chicago-based toy distributor, has the market by the tail. Again, grown-ups have spoiled all the fun.

There was a time when women collected Depression glass, vintage hat pins, or commemorative Elvis plates. Now - look out! - they're swarming around the Beanie Baby market. And what a market it is.

The diehards in my community keep their cell phones handy at all times, breathlessly waiting for underground tips on where and when the next shipment of Beanie Babies will arrive. These are the grown-ups who surf the Internet for leads. Grown-ups who leave work early to patrol the local Hallmark shops - not to buy birthday cards, but to invest in more beanbags.

Beanie Babies command hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars from serious collectors. Prices depend on the condition of the toys and their original tags, and on the availability of the particular animal. Which means your child can't really play with the Beanies and later expect them to cover college tuition.

You have to study this market. "Retired" Beanie Babies (no longer produced and hard to find) earn top dollar. You also must learn another language. OT means "old tag." NLP is short for "no longer produced."

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I can't help but wonder: Will the Beanie Baby market crash? Can a craze like this drain bank accounts indefinitely? Stranger things have happened. Some people hoard Barbie dolls; others collect Hula-Hoops.

WHEN my son and his friends started buying Beanie Babies two years ago, they never dreamed they were making major investments. Back then, it was relatively easy to persuade Mom to drive to a retailer, pay for a fistful of Beanies, then safely exit the store.

No more.

During several Beanie Baby quests, my son was trampled by a herd of women racing to the shelves to capture an endangered animal - the last Ziggy the Zebra, perhaps.

And I have witnessed younger children, near tears, leaving shops empty-handed while someone else's grandma carried home a bag bulging with her latest Beanie bounty.

"Some of these people are rude - really rude," my son told me, citing the example of a grown woman who "made an ugly face" at him when he reached for the same Beanie Baby she was after. The woman, of course, won out.

What can you tell children when adults misbehave? "They're just grown-ups, honey," I reply with resignation. "They don't know any better."

* Cynthia G. La Ferle is a nationally published columnist and essayist in Royal Oak, Mich.

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