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Pope Francis inspires a craze, and a quest, for a bobblehead doll

Pope Francis inspires a craze, and a quest, for a bobblehead doll
Samir Sabir, at City Souvenirs in Manhattan, opens a fresh supply of bobblehead Pope Francis dolls, which are scarce in New York City. (Tina Susman / Los Angeles Times)

It was a simple request. Someone wanted a Pope Francis doll.

You know the ones.

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The bobblehead dolls that show the smiling pontiff, his right hand waving to adoring crowds and his head bobbing gently.

They're everywhere, right?

Wrong.

If Pope Francis' visit to New York has proved anything, it's that nobody can resist an item with the words "limited edition" in front of it.

This is the city where you can buy Christmas ornaments year round, where you can get a slice of pizza or a delectable dish of General Tso's chicken at 3 a.m., and where it's hard to walk down a busy street without someone thrusting a leaflet at you trying to sell something.

But a bobbleheaded pope?

That takes a miracle.

My quest began on 5th Avenue near 34th Street, which as always seemed on the verge of sinking beneath the weight of pedestrian traffic. Some of the city's busiest souvenir shops are here, but it quickly became clear that there were no papal dolls to be found.

"I wish," said Terrence Dat, who said he'd had a couple of dozen on the shelf Tuesday. "We can't hold on to them. "

Dat suggested trying other souvenir shops along the street.

All told the same story. As soon as the little dolls came in, they went right back out, snapped up by shoppers.

There were pope refrigerator magnets, pope keychains, even little girls' bracelets adorned with charms featuring the pope's face. But no bobblehead dolls.

"We sold out. Everyone did," said Mohamed Aqil, who was putting a Pope Francis T-shirt onto a mannequin's chest at the front entrance to his City Souvenirs shop. The shirts were also expected to sell out, as Aqil's last batch had hours earlier.

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He gave a shopper a tip, though. His other store a few blocks away was expecting a shipment of some dolls shortly.

I headed west, dodging the pedestrian and car traffic while staring in every little store along the way to Aqil's second shop in hopes of getting lucky.

One shop had a papal bobblehead in the window, but the store was closed.  The doll's head nodded up and down, jiggling  tantalizingly as other doll hunters tried the door over and over, some shaking it as if that would suddenly open the shop for business.

Ahead, a man waved a large sign in the air. "We sell pope dolls. Less than 200 feet away," it proclaimed.

It seemed too good to be true.

It was.

The dolls were cheesy cloth numbers, bearing little resemblance to Francis and not something fit for an office or home shelf.

The dolls from Royal Bobbles, on the other hand, a Georgia-based company that specializes in bobble heads, are impressive likenesses to Pope Francis, down to the silver cross he wore as a cardinal.

"Yes, this is the famous Pope Francis bobblehead one you've been hearing about!" the company says on its website.

Finally, the souvenir shop Aqil had directed me to came into view. Samir Sabir was running the store, and he was awaiting a fresh delivery of dolls to replenish the supply.

Sabir said he had paid extra for an overnight delivery from a distributor Upstate. The price, Sabir admitted, was rising as demand soared. A doll that once cost $30 was now costing more than $50, and it might go higher by Thursday.

For a pope admired for his embrace of the poor and his anti-greed message, the rising price of dolls in his own image would seem sure to infuriate Francis.

Warren Royal, the company owner, agreed that he did not intend for anyone to get rich off the dolls, which the company began producing in 2013, after Francis was elected. The wholesale price is a little more than $20 per doll, he said in a phone interview.

"None of us anticipated the demand," said Royal, estimating that Royal Bobbles has produced about 25,000 of the dolls. Some have yet to arrive from the manufacturer in China, but they already are on order.

Royal said demand has outpaced even that for Barack Obama bobbleheads in 2008, making the Pope Francis dolls the most popular among the dozens of world leaders, presidents and historical figures re-created by Royal Bobbles.

"It has become a kind of pop culture thing, but that wasn't the original purpose," he said, adding that the dolls represent more than mere souvenirs to show off. Royal said he had read the reviews online about the dolls, from buyers who described the polyresin pope as a calming presence in their home, their church, or at the bedside of a sick relative.

"Everybody loves this pope," Royal said.

Aqil agreed.

He said he would love to see Francis if he could get close enough. Instead, Aqil will stay home to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

Across town, Sabir tore into the boxes filled with pope dolls.

I bought mine before they sold out again.

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