It’s not unusual to run into an unusual scenario when one is strolling through Times Square. As a matter of fact, meeting the unusual is quite the usual for New Yorkers and the people who love them. The other day I was walking in the theater district, hurrying to get past the Naked Singing Cowboy, the semi-nude painted ladies, and the always combative costumed characters (Spider-Man and Batman have actually had throw-down fistfights). As I was trying to perfect my nonchalant speedwalking, I actually stopped dead in my tracks. Now, for a person who grew up in Brooklyn to stop smack-dab in the middle of Midtown Manhattan, there had to be something worth seeing. There was: it was the opening of the Line Friends department store. And in the window of this centrally located business were some of the cutest, cuddliest, and largest stuffed animals I’d ever seen!
The Line Friends are a South Korean/Japanese collaboration. Apparently, in 2011—seven years ago, which is a lifetime in the world of mobile technology—the Line Friends (or LINE FRIENDS, as their press releases proclaim) debuted as sticker characters on a messaging app. Released by Line Corporation, a Japanese subsidiary of the South Korean Internet search company Naver Corporation, these adorable critters demanded to break down the fourth wall. Not happy to remain as a cyber creature confined to cell phones and the like, the Line Friends wanted to become real. Consider them the Velveteen Rabbits of the 21st century.
So, like any happy-ever-after fairy tale, the Line Friends did get a chance to become three-dimensional, huggable plush friends. They also morphed into clothing selections, accessories, home goods, stationery, candies, bed linens, toys, and anything else that can be made super fun, super sweet, and super collectible.
With stores in Asia—mammoth ones opened in Hong Kong and Korea—and one poised to open in Tokyo, the Line Friends stores are designed to be a theme park set smack-dab in the middle of a metropolitan hive. And, yes, that’s just what this Times Square store is. Located at 1515 Broadway, it is a beacon to happiness, joyfulness, and unapologetic commerce. The shop is filled with colorful sundries, and the customers are excited to be there to scoop up their favorite Line Friends.
Now, just who is who? There were tons of options to buy, and Line Friends has calculated that they have about 5,000 products out there. I don’t think there were 5,000 different selections in New York City, but it came pretty darn close. Wherever I turned, there was another variation on Brown, Choco, Cony, Pangyo, Jessica, and James. But who and what are these names? Well, they are characters that make a little bit of sense, while also being delightfully nonsensical.
The big guy that first beckoned me to enter the Line Friends store was Brown. Brown is, in fact, a brown bear. With his turned-down mouth and close-set eyes, he seems a little forlorn, a bit vulnerable, and very poignant. He’s like the Winnie-the-Pooh meets Eeyore of the set—shy and quiet, not displaying facial emotions. (Though I learned from some of the shoppers at the store, when Brown gets mad, you want to head for the hills!)
Brown is married to Cony, who is a very pretty female white rabbit. (Yes, in the world of Line Friends, there is no such thing as taboo species relationships.) Cony is a great wife to her bear hubby and she resides in a peach-colored house that is defined by its two rabbit ears. Interestingly enough, “coney” or “cony” means rabbit. That’s why Coney Island was given its name; it used to be overrun with bunnies. Cony is best friends with—drumroll, please—a black-and-white cat.
Yes, this tuxedo-looking feline is BFF with a bunny who is married to a bear. Does it sound silly as I am typing this? Yes. Am I embarrassed that I chatted about this and took notes? Nope! I really liked the Jessica character because she reminded me of my own beloved tuxedo cat, Annie, and I also liked the idea of this female-centric relationship. Even though Cony (the rabbit, follow me, people) is wed to Brown the bear, she still finds a lot of time for girls-night-out activities with Jessica. Apparently, Jessica is a party girl who never turns down a special invite.
Nestled in Times Square, surrounded by the screeching of subways, the wailing of ambulance sirens, the hustle-and-bustle of a million tourists, the Line Friends store is an oasis for fantasy and make-believe, cuteness and charm.
In decades past, the Muppets took Manhattan—there was even a movie made about it! This week, I stumbled upon a shop that combines the magical whimsy of Jim Henson with the tech marvel of Steve Jobs. Without their original message-app application, the Line Friends wouldn’t exist. Thankfully, though, they are now in the real world, gleefully departing their cyber-only lives.
And in Times Square, and slowly throughout Asia, these collectible characters allow Mr. Moon (an alien who looks like the moon) to follow his heart and to fan his crush on Jessica the cat. And all the while, the narcissistic human James, with the long blond hair and pointy chin, looks on . . .
Yes, the Line Friends are a handful. They were new to me, and there are so many to learn about and to absorb their backstories. It’s almost like re-discovering Rachel, Ross, Phoebe, Chandler, Joey, and Monica, and remember how long those FRIENDS stuck around!