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Model Librarian Is a Bestseller

Times Staff Writer

In the two years since an action figure modeled after Nancy Pearl first went on sale, owners of the 5-inch plastic toy have sent Pearl photographs of the mini-Nancy at the Eiffel Tower, the base camp of Mt. Everest -- even atop a wedding cake.

The Pearl figurine outsells models of Da Vinci, Einstein, Freud and Houdini, and currently runs second in sales only to Jesus Christ.

Not bad for a librarian.

It is a measure of Seattle’s bookish soul (and perhaps its appetite for kitsch) that an action toy of a bespectacled city librarian could be such a hit. Complete with its “amazing push-button shushing action,” the figurine -- whose sales have passed 100,000, according to the distributor -- has just been issued in a “deluxe” form, with book cart, desk and computer.

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Despite the toy’s movable index-finger-to-the-lips feature, Pearl says she can recall shushing patrons just twice in her 38-year career. Both times were in her early years in Detroit, she recalled with a laugh.

But Pearl, 60, has gotten people’s attention in other ways. She is author of “Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason,” and “More Book Lust,” chatty compendiums of her reading recommendations -- roughly 3,000 books in all, grouped under sections with quirky headings such as “Sex and the Single Reader,” “It Was a Dark and Stormy Novel” and “Physicians Writing More Than Prescriptions.” They are published by Seattle-based Sasquatch Books.

As director of the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library, Pearl drew national attention for her 1998 program “If All of Seattle Read the Same Book,” which has become an annual event and has been replicated in dozens of communities globally. She also offers book recommendations on National Public Radio.

Passionate about books and reading as she is, Pearl has a rather surprising revelation about her own reading habits: For every book she finishes, she says, she gives up on roughly 10.

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“Life’s too short not to enjoy whatever you’re reading,” she said recently at the apartment she shares with her husband of 39 years, Joe, who she says is more of a movie fan than a book fan.

Her rule of thumb is that you have to try a book for at least 50 pages before you give up on it -- unless you’re older than 50, in which case the magic number is your age subtracted from 100.

If you’re 90, she explained, you’ve earned the right to set a book aside after 10 pages.

And if you make it to 100?

“Why then,” she said brightly, “you can judge a book by its cover!”

There are exceptions to her 50-page rule, of course.

“Basically, school and book club,” Pearl said. “If it’s for either of those, you gotta just read the book.”

Pearl retired from the Center for the Book last year, but she and the city’s chief librarian, Deborah L. Jacobs, both maintain a bit of rock-star appeal in Seattle, where last year’s reopening of the city’s $165-million downtown Central Library was a major cultural event.

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The building was redesigned by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, featuring a soaring glass-and-steel facade and a spiraling, brightly colored interior that ascends through the Dewey decimal system.

Seattle’s rainy days may increase the appeal of a good book, offering some explanation for the city’s literary-minded reputation; in any case, visiting authors often say they are struck by the crowds that turn out for readings at the city’s symphony hall and at Elliott Bay Book Co., a well-known independent bookstore.

Pearl’s two “Book Lust” books have sold a combined 150,000 copies, and she is working on a book of recommendations for young readers.

That volume has the somewhat chaste working title of “Book Crush.” But Pearl said the suggestive titles of her other books were appropriate. Truth be told, she wanted the sequel to be called “Book Lust 2: The Morning After” as an allusion to the many regrets she had about authors she failed to mention in the first volume.

“I was so sad and embarrassed,” Pearl said. “I mean, I left out Anthony Trollope. I left out Bill Bryson. What was I thinking?”

For all the success of the “Book Lust” volumes, it is arguably the action figure that has drawn more attention to Pearl -- not all of it positive.

Some librarians complained; one even said its shushing action set librarians’ image back 50 years. The controversy made news as far away as Pakistan.

“Librarians are incredibly wired, and they were talking about it all over the world,” said Mark Pahlow, owner of Accoutrements, which produces the figurines. “Some really thought it was derogatory. Once they realized it was really a homage to librarians everywhere, most people cooled off, but there are still a few in the lunatic fringe who are upset about it.”

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Pahlow wholesales his figurines and also sells them at Archie McPhee, a novelty store in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. The standard Pearl librarian model is $8.95; it was the fastest-selling item in the company’s 20-year history, with 28,000 snapped up in the first month.

The $12.95 deluxe set has Pearl in a red suit, with much of the gray taken out of her hair, as well as the side props. It debuted last month.

Pahlow, a friend of Pearl who dreamed up the idea of making a model of her during a dinner party they attended a few years ago, said he thought there were strong reasons it had struck such a chord.

“Librarians tend to be overlooked and underpaid, but they’ve had a lot of influence on a lot of people’s lives, which is certainly the case for me,” he said. “So I think this figure has touched a lot of people. You wouldn’t believe how many people say, ‘Oh, my mother was a librarian,’ or ‘My sister’s a librarian.’ ”


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