Clients embrace gift service Here's a Hug offers stuffed animals for special occasions

December 23, 1997|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

Jesselyn Johl had more than the Monday blues a week ago -- she also had a black eye.

The 67-year-old Columbia woman got those distinctive bruises when she spent the day at St. Agnes Hospital having a cancerous tumor near her right eye removed. She was feeling down in the dumps.

Her mood did an about face Wednesday when Lynn Spence, owner of Here's a Hug and a self-described "oBEARator," delivered a cuddly white teddy bear. The idea was to cheer Johl up. It worked.

"Oh my goodness," Johl said as she clutched the bear in her hands. "He's so cute. This is just lovely."

Johl was pleased, and Spence was beaming. This was the reaction she had in mind when she started Here's a Hug 10 months ago.

Operated out of Spence's home in Ellicott City, Here's a Hug delivers teddy bears and Beanie Babies to clients in the Baltimore area. The stuffed animals can be used to celebrate the birth of a child or to commiserate after the death of a family member.

Spence also delivers the occasional smile and hug.

"I'm thankful for moments like this," Spence, 50, said after she gave the bear to Johl.

Others, including Pamela Koffel of Marriottsville, are grateful because the personalized service allows them to finish their Christmas lists without enduring holiday mall traffic.

"I'm a working mom," said Koffel, who teaches in the gifted and talented program at Bushy Park Elementary School in Glenwood. "Anything that saves me time is a blessing."

The service offered by Here's a Hug is thought to be one of three such bear delivery operations in the country and the only one in Maryland.

The genesis for the idea came two years ago when Spence learned that a woman she had roomed with while both were teachers in Fort Bragg, N.C., was dying of cancer.

Spence told her daughter Kristin, and Kristin sent flowers to her mother.

"I called her to tell her how much I enjoyed the flowers," recalled Lynn Spence, who teaches in the gifted and talented program at Northfield Elementary School in Ellicott City. "She said to me, 'Mom, I knew you needed a hug, but there was no way to do that.' And I thought, 'Why isn't there a way?' "

To that end, Spence said, she wanted to figure out how to send something on such occasions that would last, which ruled out flowers. Candy was too fattening, and it, too, would soon disappear. Then she thought of teddy bears.

"They can be hugged, they're soft, and they're always friendly," she said. "You cannot not be happy when you're with a teddy bear."

So Spence did some research on the Internet and found only two similar businesses, one in New York and another in California.

Since she opened in February, Spence estimates, she has sold about 100 teddy bears and 1,000 Beanie Babies to customers as far away as Oklahoma, Florida and Texas.

Three months ago, a man in Australia placed an order for his girlfriend in Nova Scotia, Spence said. "It took us a few e-mails to get the currency right," she said with a laugh.

The teddy bear industry is anything but soft. In 1996, consumer sales of teddy bears reached $2.6 billion, up 11 percent since 1995, said Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing, a Pennsylvania- based consulting firm that specializes in collectibles and gifts.

The appeal, said Mindy Kinsey, managing editor of the bi-monthly Teddy Bear & Friends, is that teddy bears are favorites of both girls and boys.

"It's a friend," Kinsey said of the stuffed animals. "They're lovable and hugable. You only have to look at a bear before you fall in love with it."

That's what Spence is banking on. Through her Web page (www.abs.net/bearhug) and toll-free number (888-866-BEAR), she offers 15 bears -- varying from a Ty Theodore to a Boyd's Smith Witter 2, her most popular bear. Prices range from $7.50 to $30.

She is also getting 12 Princess Diana bears and has a waiting list of 42 buyers.

On Wednesday, the bear to Johl was a gift from Spence, who has befriended Johl since she placed several orders with Spence.

"She really goes out of her way to take care of her customers," Johl said. "She's in a league all her own."

Pub Date: 12/23/97

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