Marl Davidson, a longtime Barbie dealer based in Bradenton, shows off a doll in her extensive collection. Article & Photo: Jul 16, 2023, Kathryn Varn/Axios
Marl Davidson opened the door of her home-business in Lakewood Ranch wearing hot-pink slides and a black T-shirt with the signature loopy “Barbie” across the front.
- “Barbie built this house,” she quipped when Axios visited last month to talk about the famous doll’s upcoming movie debut.
- Davidson had been in the game long enough that she no longer decorates with a Barbie in every room. The furry ballet-pink pillows on her couch were a more subtle tribute.
Zoom in: Davidson has been buying, selling and collecting modern and vintage Barbies since 1987 through her business, Marl & B. She started with a collection she bought in her home state of Virginia for $10,000. Within a month, she’d sold the dolls for double what she paid, she said.
- In the pre-internet days, “I’d be on an airplane practically every other weekend,” she said, hopping from one doll show to another with a staff that at one point was five people.
- Her first website was running by 1995, which is also when she moved to Bradenton with her late husband after he retired. She still goes to gatherings these days, but a lot of her sales happen on her website and on eBay.
Driving the news: In the world of Barbie dealing, Davidson is royalty. And Marl & B has been especially busy lately.
- The much-anticipated “Barbie” movie comes out Friday, ginning up renewed fandom for a doll whose sales were on the decline within the decade.
- The hype has led to Barbie-themed events, interior design trends and merchandise ranging from washable rugs to entire clothing lines.
Yes, but: For Davidson and her fellow enthusiasts, the rest of the world’s excitement is just catching up to how they’ve felt all along.
- Exhibit A: This month’s National Barbie Doll Collectors Convention in Orlando. There, hundreds of hardcore fans, Davidson included, gathered to admire each other’s collections, raise money for charity and take workshops on topics such as “Making Doll Size Tropical Drinks.”
- Barbie clubs around the country have organized the annual convention for more than 25 years. This year’s event lasted five days, with the final day open to the public.
State of play: There was a jolt of enthusiasm around this year’s convention, event organizer Dawn Arney Moore told Axios. The registration waitlist for the 850-participant event grew to 500 people, she said. Moore saw more folks, including families with children, come through the gathering on the day it opened to the public.
- “I credit that to the movie,” she said. It’s “bringing Barbie back.”
- Ask a few conventioneers whether they feel any “we liked this before it was cool” ownership over the fandom, and the answer is a resounding no.
The bottom line: You may be late to the party, but they’re glad you’re here.
Several shelves of Barbie dolls at the National Barbie Doll Collectors Convention. Photo: Kathryn Varn/Axios
Forming Barbie friendships
Back at Davidson’s house, the camaraderie borne from the doll was on full display. Swedish Barbie shop owner Beate Rau had swung by for a visit during a road trip through Florida ahead of the convention.
State of play: Together, they indulged in Barbie lore (such as the defunct “Ken-vention”) and ogled over Davidson’s vast inventory, stowed in her home office and garage, complete with a shipping station.
- That included Twist ‘n Turn Barbies that kicked off the mod era and Color Magic Barbies with hair that changes shade with a solution included in the package. Davidson had members of Barbie’s universe, too, like Ken, and Barbie’s little sister Skipper, and some more recently manufactured dolls, like Edward the vampire from the “Twilight” franchise.
Between the lines: The vintage Barbies run from hundreds to thousands of dollars, with one of several No. 1 Barbies, in their iconic black-and-white strapless one-piece — Davidson’s favorite — topping off at $14,999. Prices depend on factors like hair color and condition.
- For Rau, seeing the inner workings of Marl & B was its own treat. Davidson knows her stuff, she said. “You can trust her.”
A shelf of Davidson’s favorite No. 1 dolls in her home office. Photo: Kathryn Varn/Axios.
Yes, but: It’s about more than the money. Davidson, who also considers herself a collector, loves Barbie.
- She’s beautiful and spurs a sweet nostalgia in her customers, she said, and she’s a fashion icon that keeps Davidson young. (She didn’t want to publicize her age — “I’m just another ageless Barbie,” she joked — but consider that she had a whole life before she started selling more than three decades ago.)
Zoom out: On the last day of the Orlando convention, families and amateur collectors perused the sales rooms packed with Barbies, boxes of doll clothes, and handmade accessories like fingernail-sized passports and tiny platters of food.
Zoom in: But there were also the intangibles, the friendships and the reunions spurred by events like this.
- It was Barbie that brought together friends Lucia Lancey, of Miami, and Mario Paglino, of Italy, at a convention more than 20 years ago. They arrived in Orlando early for this year’s event to celebrate their mutual birthday with a visit to Disney’s Magic Kingdom.
- First-time convention goer Adrienne Mason, who over the pandemic taught herself how to repaint Barbie faces to look more realistic or like a specific person, finally got to meet the virtual friends she’d made through Instagram’s #dollstagram community.
Mario Paglino and Lucia Lancey met through the Barbie universe. Photo: Kathryn Varn/Axios
The big picture: Those friendships are one of the best parts of the Barbie universe, Davidson said, and she hopes the movie will continue to spur interest in the next generation of collectors.
- For all the wheeling and dealing over the years, there are some accessories that money just can’t buy.