OXON HILL, Md. — Eight miles south of the White House, a crowd gathered under a giant inflatable yellow chick to welcome the nation's first emporium devoted to Peeps, a fluffy marshmallow candy that has attained cult-like status.
Most of the Peeps-branded products were inedible. So is the candy, some would say.
"There's something mystical about Peeps," said Matthew Beals, a New York filmmaker who has shot a 45-minute documentary about people obsessed with spongy bunnies and chicks. "They really inspire a passion."
Fans of the pastel-colored, sugar-coated confections have compiled a Lord of the Peeps trilogy, filmed Star Wars Peeps and sent them into space on a NASA weather balloon.
Students with too much time have conducted numerous faux studies. One shows what happens if a Peep is submerged in liquid nitrogen, at minus 210 degrees Centigrade, and then hit with a hammer. (It shatters.)
More than 100,000 people belong to a Peeps fan club, and Web sites and YouTube videos abound. So do "Peep Off" competitions: The record holder ate 102 in 30 minutes in Sacramento, Calif. And nearly 30 newspapers sponsored Peeps diorama contests for Easter.
The Washington Post received 1,100 entries, including such memorable scenes as Peeps prisoners in Guantanamo Bay, John Steinbeck's sad-faced Peeps of Wrath, a flying Mary Peepins and a Peeps plane awash in the Hudson River.
The winner was NightPeeps, a noirish homage to Edward Hopper's brooding 1942 oil painting, Nighthawks. The box-sized diner even had two working florescent lights to recreate the scene.
"One third of the Peeps we sell, people don't eat," said Kathy Bassininski, vice president at Just Born, the family-owned company that created Peeps in 1954. "They play with them."
Ross J. Born runs the company with his cousin, David Shaffer, in Bethlehem, Pa. Balding and elfin, Born bubbles with the energy one expects from a man who eats candy every day.
"I never in my wildest dreams thought Peeps would take off the way they did," he said.
The first Peeps were yellow chicks for Easter baskets, but Just Born now makes Peep bats, cats, snowmen and more. The company claims it produces enough Peeps in a year to circle the Earth twice.
It also says 8,000 Peeps bunnies, stacked atop each other, would reach the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago. (That's also 260,000 calories.)
The first Peeps & Company Store opened with a gala ribbon cutting in National Harbor, a mall and convention center along the Potomac River. Hard hit by the recession, the mall boasts more boarded-up windows than stores.
But business was booming in the Peeps store on Thursday. Lights pulsated from the ceiling and inside a huge yellow chick. Music thumped from speakers.
"I was hoping to get a Village Peeple T-shirt, but they don't have it yet," Debbie Lidle, a government worker, said wistfully.