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Globe Editorial

Games: Sweet vindication for a fruit vendor’s son

June 13, 2010

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Abraham Nathanson, the Rhode Islander who invented the popular game Bananagrams at age 75, lived an uncannily symmetrical life.

He grew up during the Great Depression, the son of poor Russian immigrants. When he was a teenager, his father, a fruit vendor, abandoned his wife and four children to what Nathanson would later describe as a “Dickensian existence.’’ So it was vindicating when Nathanson, who recently died at 80 at his summer home in Narragansett, found success later in life selling a fruit-themed word game that he created and marketed with his family’s help.

Nathanson devised the fast-paced game after losing a long Scrabble game to his 11-year-old grandson. “We need an anagrams game so fast, it’ll drive you bananas,’’ Nathanson told the boy. With that, an idea was born. Nathanson spent the next year crafting the game’s pieces and rules. His ex-wife stitched together a banana-shaped storage bag, his daughter drew up a marketing plan, and his grandchildren tested the prototypes. In the last four years, Bananagrams has sold over 2 million copies in the United States and been translated into six languages.

Nathanson mostly relied on word of mouth to sell his low-tech product. There were no national ad campaigns, and he rebuffed big toy companies that wanted to buy him out. Until recently, Nathanson wouldn’t even allow big-box chains to sell his game because, as he told the Globe last year, they “force too many small guys out of business.’’

Nathanson’s success goes to show that even in a high-tech world, some of the best ideas are the simplest. And no one is too old for a new idea.

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