How we look up to those who look things up

Latest action hero works in a library and is 5 inches tall

April 04, 2004|By Donna M. Owens | Donna M. Owens,Special to the Sun

She's neither faster than a speeding bullet, nor able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Yet the Librarian Action Figure could become a 21st-century superhero.

Her mission: to promote the written word and celebrate the work that librarians do every day.

Just how does a 5-inch-tall plastic doll achieve that? With her own baseball-style trading card, library facts, a check-out card -- and what the package calls her "amazing push-button shushing action."

That blend of education and kitsch has helped sales boom at toy stores, booksellers and library gift shops across the country, including Baltimore.

"They're selling hand over fist," says David Wahl of Accoutrements, the doll's Seattle-based creator,

known for offbeat items designed to "inspire, impassion, educate and challenge."

Launched last September, it's part of a line of historical action figures and "so-called normal people at work," including Jesus, Moses, Cleopatra, Einstein, Rosie the Riveter, and Benjamin Franklin (also a librarian).

Wahl says the newest figure quickly ascended to its top-five list of best sellers.

"It was obviously popular in library gift shops, but we have crossed over," he says of the figure, which retails around $9 at the company's Archie McPhee store, online, and at specialty stores nationwide. "It's a great product for us."

No major chains carry the figure, but it's flying off shelves at smaller outlets across the country.

"It's doing really well, really popular," says Danica Newell, assistant manager of Toy Joy in Austin, Texas. "Not one particular demographic buys it," notes Newell. "A lot of people think she's humorous. Some like her because she looks kind of strict."

Powells City of Books in Portland, Ore., an independent bookseller with 10 locations, was already carrying other figures from the line.

This doll has been an even bigger hit, says buyer Susan Reilly. "We're a bookstore, so this was a really good tie-in. We began carrying it as soon as we could get it, and we got a lot of requests even before we began selling. People asked if we had it."

The Los Angeles and New York City public libraries are among the systems stocking the doll in their gift shops, according to Wahl.

Locally, it's available at the Enoch Pratt library's central branch downtown, at the Pratt Place Library Shop.

'She's cute'

Joseph Alston, the gift shop's manager, first noticed the product at one of the vendor shows he attends a few times a year.

He knew immediately the doll would fit in perfectly among the shop's inventory of some 3,000 items: tote bags, sweatshirts, pens, bookmarks, umbrellas, toys, stationery, cards, city souvenirs and books signed by visiting authors.

"I had my order in before the manufacturer completed it," says Alston, smiling. "I try to get things that are library related, educational and in good taste. And our profits contribute to the Pratt's overall mission."

Alston reports that the doll has been selling well, so much so that he recently ordered more because the first batch sold out.

"People are buying them as gifts, and lots of librarians really like them," he notes. "It's something for them to look at fondly, and lighten their day. They're glad someone's finally thought of them."

"She's cute," says veteran Pratt librarian Doug Skeen. "We keep one upstairs in the telephone reference."

Performing miracles

Modeled after real-life Seattle librarian Nancy Pearl, the idea for the doll was conceived at a dinner party in 2002.

"The owner of Accoutrements was there," explains 59-year-old Pearl, director of Library Programming and the Washington Center for the Book at the Seattle Public Library. She's also an author, radio host and book reviewer.

"That morning there was a story in a tabloid about a Jesus action figure performing miracles. Someone commented that librarians perform miracles every single day ... Someone else said there ought to be a library action figure with me. We all laughed, but I never thought it would happen."

Pearl soon found herself sitting for photographs for the doll, which is made in China. Clad in a blue suit, it holds a tiny plastic replica of Pearl's most recent book, titled Book Lust. Nearby is a stack of her favorite literature -- from Eudora Welty to the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.

"It's an honor," says Pearl, who developed the "If All Seattle Read the Same Book" project and was awarded the 2003 Washington Humanities Award. "The vast majority of librarians have told me this is wonderful."

Has librarians talking

Despite strong sales, the doll's appearance and demeanor haven't gone over well with everyone, according to the toy-maker.

Seems her conservative attire, glasses and bun hairdo have struck some as being too traditional, and stereotypically prim.

"There was a big hoo-ha because some librarians thought she wasn't glamorous enough," explains Wahl. "And some complained about the shushing action. They said 'librarians don't shush.' "

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