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Friday, February 27, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Librarians check it out: New chapter in an action figure's success story

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The Public Library Association's conference, under way in Seattle, is mostly closed to the public, though nonmembers can purchase an Exhibits Plus pass for $25 to attend book signings and peruse exhibits. Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl will sign books and dolls from 12:30-1:30 p.m. today. Visit www.pla.org for more information on the association.

The librarian and the movie star went head to head yesterday at the Public Library Association's National Conference in Seattle.

Since opening Wednesday night, the bookstore set up for the conference at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center has sold as many Nancy Pearl librarian action figures as it has posters of actor Orlando Bloom, looking hunky above the word "READ." The store's staff expects to sell out of its 180 dolls by tonight.

The real-life Pearl, a 59-year-old Seattle librarian easily embarrassed by excessive attention and praise, considers the popularity of her figurine a hoot.

"It just feels so — it just is — I mean who would've thought — I never thought," she said, smiling and turning pink.

Librarians from across the country and Canada have been cramming into the small, makeshift bookstore on the fourth floor of the convention center during their 10th annual conference to get their hands on the doll they'd only heard about until now. About 8,000 people, not all librarians, are expected to attend the conference.

Created by Seattle-based company Accoutrements, the 5-inch-tall version of Pearl features a movable arm that brings her finger to her mouth in a shushing motion. It has sold in the tens of thousands since its debut six months ago at Ballard's Archie McPhee store, said Heather Conrad, Accoutrements' wholesale customer-service manager. It outsold the Jesus figurine near Christmas and is available at library gift shops and other stores nationwide.

"Our basic concept behind action figures is to find the unlikely heroes for adults and to combine them with the idea of childlike use of action figures," said David Wahl, who does public relations for Archie McPhee.

Other Accoutrements action figures include Ludwig van Beethoven, William Shakespeare, Sigmund Freud and Moses.

Though beloved by many librarians, the Nancy Pearl doll has spurred complaints that the shushing gesture, glasses and outfit are "stereotypical" and "dowdy."

Pearl, who said it hasn't been easy to hear people criticize a doll made in her likeness, reminds herself that it's just a doll.

"And you have to go with the stereotype and then make fun enough and show that we're cool enough to rub elbows with the Benjamin Franklin (action figures) and all those other people," Pearl said. She is also the executive director of the Washington Center for the Book and the author of "Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Reason."

Librarians at this week's convention, which ends tomorrow, say it's fitting that Pearl be immortalized as a superhero, because librarians help people. Dianna Austin stood in line hugging three Nancy Pearl dolls, one for each of her three co-workers in Reno, Nev., who couldn't attend the conference.

Jane Stanley, a librarian from Highland Park, N.J., scored two of the dolls (one for herself, one for her boyfriend) and said she might come back for more. Mentioning the Jesus action figure also made by Accoutrements, Stanley said Pearl is "right up there with the people who make a change in the world."

Toni Myers owns one Nancy Pearl doll and has given at least five as gifts.

"People think our world is just this nice, calm, quiet world, but it's not. It's an activist's world," said Myers, a retired librarian from the Seattle Public Library. "People are forever telling us, 'Oh, you've saved my life.' People say it's not brain surgery, but I think it kind of is."

Pearl, who will speak about her book today at the convention and sign posters, dolls and books, was previously well-known in the library circle for her "If All Seattle Read the Same Book" program.

"Book Lust" has sold more than 50,000 copies since its release in September, far surpassing local publisher Sasquatch's expectations. But Pearl said her goal is simply to spread a love of reading.

Growing up in a family "that wasn't exactly happy," she spent much of her childhood in a library wanting to be just like the librarian, Ms. Whitehead.

The coolest part about her doll-induced fame has been watching her 18-month-old granddaughter learn to identify objects, such as shoes and glasses, by playing with the doll. The little one even does the shushing motion.

"But I've been hugely heartened that people all over the country and all over the world think the doll is a wonderful tribute to librarians," Pearl said.

Young Chang: ychang@seattletimes.com or 206-748-5815

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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