Beany, BABY

The book series about the freckled Denver teen-ager may be long out of print, but its popularity is soaring online.

January 04, 1999|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Forget Beanies. A different Beany is heating up the Internet these days, as nostalgic baby boomers and new fans pursue out-of-print books about a freckled Denver teen-ager who ate pineapple nut sundaes at Downey's Drug Store and worried about her date for the Heart Hop.

With the help of Internet auctions and Web sites that allow one to search hundreds of used-book stores with a single keystroke, avid reader-collectors are spending upward of $100 per title for Lenora Mattingly Weber's Beany Malone books, an obscure young-adult series that first appeared in the 1940s.

The books would seem to be hopelessly out of date, with their malt-shop milieu and a heroine who struggles to make nutritious but economical dinners for her family so she can use the savings for prom dresses. Beany's life spanned World War II and the Vietnam War, but the books were largely resistant to the cataclysmic changes of the 1960s.

And that's their appeal for Weber's many fans. I know because I am one. Yes, my name is Laura and I'm a Beany-aholic.

Weber's readers are the first to admit that her books, while well-reviewed in their day, may lack the timeless quality of Louisa May Alcott's work or L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables series. But their charms are as specific as the jangly tokens hanging from Beany's bracelet (a jar of freckle cream, a tiny red car, a leprechaun with a roguish grin).

"I was just absolutely shocked that they were of value, because they're not great literature, you know what I mean?" says Cynthia Proctor, 45, who works with developmentally disabled adults in Salt Lake City and considered the Malone clan "a substitute family" when she was growing up. But "it's the characters that bring you back."

"I'm not even sure Weber was the same caliber a writer as Montgomery, for instance," says Rosemary Parker, 47, a Michigan journalist. "But boy, we sure love Beany there's a whole cult of us out there."

Librarians at the Denver Public Library, where Weber's papers are kept, call the fans "Beany Malone-ites" and report a recent upswing of interest this past summer, as fans made pilgrimages to the author's hometown and searched for real-life counterparts to "the Boul," Harkness High School and the Ragged Robin drive-in.

But unlike traditional book collectors, these women -- and they're almost always women -- don't want pristine first editions, but reading copies that they'll feel comfortable curling up with, again and again and again.

Proctor, a relatively new collector, said she started bidding on the books on ebay, an Internet auction site, because "I wanted to be able to read them when I wanted to read them." Her local library no longer has the books.

"I would buy [photocopies] although I know, technically, that's not legal," says Anna Stiritz, 28, of Arkansas, who says her part-time work as an attorney finances her "Beany habit." "It's not about the cover, or the fact that it's an old book in my hand," she says. "It's about the text."

The author

Born in Dawn, Mo., in 1895, Weber was the daughter of Colorado homesteaders. The mother of five sons and one daughter, she was widowed in the 1940s and relied on her books to support her family.

Her passions can be found reflected in her characters, whether it's Beany's love of cooking, Johnny Malone's interest in Western history, or Mary Fred Malone's skill at horseback riding. As for Beany's unusual name -- the youngest Malone was christened Catherine Cecilia but became Beany when brother Johnny garbled the pronunciation of "baby."

Beany fans know this. They also know that her high school principal, Mr. Dexter, bungles her nickname ("I believe they call you Beady") and that her fiance later calls her "Shoulder-high" -- but don't get them started. Beany trivia is not for the faint of heart.

The 14 Beany novels follow Beany from early adolescence through marriage and motherhood. The stories turn on Beany's stubborn, well-intended attempts to manage the lives of her siblings and friends. Folksy, full of domestic details and heavily reliant on aphorisms, the books preach the importance of honesty, kindness and compassion.

Weber also wrote eight books about the Belford family, spotlighting class-conscious Katie Rose, then her younger sister, free-spirit Stacy. Her final book, "Sometimes a Stranger," appeared after her death in 1971, at age 74.

The interest in her work is not unprecedented. Other girls' series writers -- Janet Lambert, Rosamond du Jardin and Anne Emery, to name a few -- also are doing brisk business on the Internet, although at much lower prices.

Peaking out

And Maud Hart Lovelace, who wrote the beloved Betsy-Tacy books that are still in print, is so popular that she has two organizations and an Internet news group dedicated to her oeuvre.

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