Alex Uhl's bookstore is like a fairyland, a forest of books stacked high, in nooks and crannies, in neat piles, and where stuffed animals and dolls watch over the children like angels.
The store is named A Whale of a Tale Children's Bookshoppe, stationed at the bottom of a tall glass building near UC Irvine, near a Kinkos, bagel shops and other fixtures of strip malls and shopping centers.
But the store is special, known for reaching out to children and staging events, not to mention its ability to get big-name writers such as J.K. Rowling and Brian Jacques to veer off the chain-bookstore circuit. According to industry groups, the shop and its books have touched thousands of lives.
And so, last week, Uhl won the coveted Lucile Micheels Pannell Award, one of two national prizes given by the nonprofit Women's National Book Assn. to booksellers who "stimulate, promote and encourage children's and young people's interest in books."
Uhl's "outreach was just the greatest," said Nancy Stewart, president of the book association. "Her programs are very wide-ranging: They are not only for young children but for young adults, adults even, to so many ages and interests."
Pannell, a librarian and bookseller born in the late 1800s, built her career around introducing children to books. The award was created in her honor in 1983.
Customers say that walking through Uhl's store is like a storybook journey. Head around a corner, and there is Leo, Uhl's 5-year-old brown-and-white rabbit with eyes that one can barely see. "It is like a complete exploration; it is like a fantasy being in here. You travel to lots of places in here," said Julian Smith-Newman, an Irvine 15-year-old who has come to the store since he was 4.
Uhl said avid young readers like Julian are the ultimate example of the success of her mission to create "readers for life."
Uhl opened the store in 1989, inspired by a bookshop in Corona del Mar that she used to visit with her son, now 25. It is difficult for Uhl to explain just why children's books captured her, "but the point is, they did, and I've been reading them ever since."
Her store stocks a quarter of a million books, and she knows them all, seemingly, by heart. If the conversation leads to, say, insects, and somebody confesses that he or she has stepped on an ant--as employee Barbara Peckenpaugh made the mistake of doing the other day--Uhl responds: "Well, you haven't read 'Hey Little Ant!' "
A masterful storyteller, Uhl then reads the book aloud, a tale about a boy deciding whether to kill an ant.
Uhl is more than a natural storyteller. She publishes a quarterly newsletter, develops a recommended-reading list, promotes events and often hosts quickly planned field trips for schoolchildren. Story-time sessions are generally on Mondays and Tuesdays, but often they're spontaneous--when children visit, Uhl or Peckenpaugh or another employee will sit down and crack open a book.
"But what's really amazing is the stuff she does that is above and beyond," said employee Peggy Smith. "When a publisher is setting up an author event with her, Alex really, really pushes that the author visit at least one school in the area. If that doesn't happen . . . well, Alex once rented a theater so people--and children--could see Ruby Bridges talk about her book ["Through My Eyes"]."
Many of Uhl's customers are adults. "I spend all my money here," said Claudia Ching, 30, a graduate student studying chemical engineering at UC Irvine. "I love ducks. When I was a kid, I had a pet duck. I miss her. I buy any book that even has a duck on it. Someday when I have kids, I'll have a library. Of duck books."
It comes as no surprise to Uhl's employees or others that her clientele is so varied.
Uhl is a savvy businesswoman in a world of Barnes & Noble and Borders. Her store has become a destination, industry watchers say, because her monthly list of events is so full, and over the years she has developed a reputation for being an unusually dedicated advocate for children's books. She has also become a deft networker, someone with the ability to attract both big-name and lesser-known writers and illustrators.
Beyond that, the shop exudes something special.
"Whenever you come here, there's always that feeling, something," said Julian, the 15-year-old regular. "That feeling. It is magic."