American Girl Place thoughtful, excessive

Here are three little secrets: I pay $16 for a haircut, $20 if you include the tip. I rarely shop anything but sales racks and resale shops. I make lists for the grocery store but routinely substitute meats, based on what is on sale.

So forgive me for comparing Chicago’s newly expanded American Girl Place to Las Vegas, but that was my first impression. The destination seems simultaneously amazing and excessive.

Adults gamble that fine quality merchandise and thoughtful stories about dolls will teach children history, values, compassion and carefulness with possessions.

Little girls can wear dresses and accessories to match those of their American Girl dolls. On the Silver Belle Dress ($82 for sizes 6 to 16) is a silver taffeta skirt with beautiful embroidery. The Scarlet and Snow costs $122 for dress, cardigan sweater, tights and knit hat – but this popular outfit is harder to find.

Doll-sized outfits start at $24. Add underwear, luggage, a musical instrument with carrying case, a four-poster bed, a pet and travel carrier, a table and chairs with china settings.

Barbie never had such well-crafted and wide-ranging choices.

At the Water Tower Place store in Chicago, little craft kits enable children to make tiny tote bags or picture frames for their dolls. They can buy dolls for their dolls, including a collection of nine (each 6.5 inches tall) for $183. Tiny T-shirts can be designed. Some bakery snacks come in two sizes: child-sized and doll-sized.

The doll hair salon charges $10 to $20 to give a doll a new ’do, curly braids to double-decker ponytail. Add $5 for a “facial scrub” and fingernail decals, $14 for ear piercing.

American Girl dolls in need of more extensive TLC are admitted to the doll hospital, where body parts are replaced or reattached. A “wellness visit,” for $24, involves brushing and cleaning but “no major surgery.”

“We come to Chicago as a family every Chicago,” says Brian James of Mequon, during a three-generation family celebration for daughter Sarah’s seventh birthday. Their teatime table for 12 included three dolls and grandparents Greg and Karen James of Oconomowoc.

Any doll is welcome in the destination’s dining room and loaner dolls are available when a child arrives without a doll.

“Being at the store is all about the experience,” says Adrienne Clarke of American Girl Place Chicago. Dolls and owners can get their photos taken, attend a craft class, dine on heart-shaped pancakes or Tic-Tac-Toe Pizza.

The average visitor spends two to three hours of American Girl immersion. “The books and dolls are just the vehicles” to a bigger message about “girl empowerment,” Adrienne says. Book story lines and signage – “Go for it” and “Where will your inner star take you?” – cheer on customers.

The connection between girl and doll has been strong for an awfully long time. I used to make sure that one of mine had a window seat whenever riding on a bus to shop with my mom. I wouldn’t have given another a haircut, had I known that she’d end up with a big bald spot, but she was kept as is – and loved – for many years.

Times change, I guess, and too many diversions can pull children onto undesirable paths. The best thing that American Girl does is develop extraordinary stories for its dolls, bringing them to life as girls who confront and overcome significant challenges during momentous times in history.

How appropriate that I came across “Samantha: An American Girl Holiday” while baking cookies recently. The tender 2004 movie, based on an American Girl book, follows two orphans – one poor, the other not – who become friends during Victorian times.

So although it seems easy to write off the American Girl experience as good for the material girl, that’s an incomplete assessment. With each doll come important lessons.

There also is something so very sweet about seeing dolls, girls and their families dressed for tea, on their best behavior and as concerned about whether doll-sized teacups are as full as their own.

American Girl Place Chicago, 835 N. Michigan Ave., since October has been an anchor to Water Tower Place. The smaller American Girl Minneapolis, at Mall of America near Minneapolis, also opened recently. For more: www.americangirl.com/stores, 877-247-5223 (Chicago), 888-777-0010 (Minneapolis).

American Girl dolls and accessories are manufactured in Middleton, near Madison, and are Mattel products. Smart shoppers can save substantially, if they have patience, by going to:

The nation’s only American Girl outlet store, 3001 S. Washburn St., Oshkosh, sells accessories and clothing – but not the dolls. For more: 920-303-2222.

Returned merchandise and seconds – including American Girl dolls – are sold at deep discounts during the Annual Benefit Sale. One-half of the proceeds go to the Madison Children’s Museum; various nonprofits receive the remainder. Ticketmaster sells timed entry tickets to the popular event, which is July 18-19 at at warehouse at 8830 N. Greenview, Middleton.

For more: www.madisonchildrensmuseum.org (click “invest”).

Open all year is the Mattel Toy Store, an outlet for company products (but only books and magazines under the American Girl brand) at 8400 Fairway Place, Middleton. The store opened in 2007 and is one of seven Mattel outlets nationwide. Merchandise – such as Fisher Price, Tyco and Matchbox brands – is appropriate for newborns to age 12 years and discounts usually are 20 to 50 percent.

Inventory changes often but collector Barbie dolls are always for sale (the limit is two per adult per day). “It’s like a mom and pop store,” contends manager Jeff Tokoyek, “but we have backing from the largest toy company in the world.”

Parents get free coffee. Children can use a play area, near cashier stations. For more: www.matteltoystore.com, 608-830-4200. Jeff says a second Wisconsin Mattel store will be opened to the public next autumn in Wilmot, near Kenosha.