There's been a lot of interest in body parts lately, and not just the usual ones. Between the zombies and the cannibals, television is basically festooned with internal organs.
Yet, a lot of people are still put off by the plush toy hearts, stomachs and gallbladders Wendy Bryan sells in bright, kid-friendly colors under her I Heart Guts label.
"They're all disembodied and cut off at different spots, so I can see where that would be disturbing," says Bryan, an affable California native whose big Sally Jesse Raphael glasses and front-facing baby carrier don't jibe with the mental image most people have of an independent organ-seller. "Sometimes, people will find them in thrift stores or they'll pop up on Instagram for sale and I'll think, 'that particular organ was not welcome in that person's home.'"
By and large, though, people seem to like I Heart Guts' blend of anatomical correctness and goofy wordplay (the colon character comes with a tag that says, "You move me"). Like action figures and Razor scooters, I Heart Guts' plush organs are aimed at kids but have a strong appeal for adults.
"Every year, we keep growing," says Bryan, who runs the business with her husband, a geochemist. "It's really just people responding to a comfort item that they can take with them at a tough time. So, either you're brokenhearted, or you have colitis or — a woman just this week moved from Las Vegas to Ohio because she was getting a colon transplant, so she bought a ton of intestine stuff to give to her transplant team, which I thought was sweet."
Bryan started out as an illustrator. The Guts concept originated while she was drunk doodling in a bar.
"I drew a heart (that was) sad and bleeding and broken in half and after I drew it I thought, 'huh, I wonder what all the other organs look like,' so I busted out my copy of "Grey's Anatomy" and looked at the liver and looked at the lungs and drew sad little friends to go with the heart. Years later, my husband saw the drawings and said, 'you should do something with these.'"
Bryan set up a website and started making stickers, buttons and T-shirts.
"One day, somebody said, 'I just gave my kidney to my brother and I want to get my kidney back,' and I thought, 'I'll make (a toy kidney).' So, I started making toys, and now, we have 24 organs, everything from the rectum to the prostate to the stomach to the bladder. We have all kinds of guts."
Today, the Los Angeles-based enterprise does about half a million in sales a year. In addition to broad-minded parents, a lot of educators, medical professionals and sick people buy I Heart Guts organs, which retail for $20. Hearts outsell other organs by four to one. The rectum is least popular.
"People can go either way with the rectum," says Bryan. "They can say, 'Wow, this is a really great teaching tool to talk about something that's potentially very embarrassing,' or find it very embarrassing and (not) want to talk about it."
As a mother of three children, ages seven, five and 10 months, Bryan is surrounded by bodily needs and functions and isn't squeamish.
"We make testicles. We make uteruses. We make rectums. These are all things that we talk about in my house. To me, a prostate should be as normal to talk about as an elbow. It's in someone's body and it has a job and it's important."
Has playing in piles of kidneys and brains had any effect on her children? Bryan believes it's provided them with a broad introduction to anatomy and made the subject fun and accessible.
"Maybe they'll look back and say 'what a weird childhood we had,'" says Bryan. "But to them, it's just normal."
Bryan is currently working on a children's book and has her sights set on animating her I Heart Guts characters.