Toymaker finds librarian who's a real doll
Nancy Pearl is already a woman of action: innovator, iconoclast, radio personality and author of an upcoming book with the word "Lust" in its title.
But in the next month or so, it will be official. She'll join the ranks of Jesus, Sigmund Freud, Rosie the Riveter, Nico the Barista and a striped-shirted hipster/philosopher named Fuzz.
What puts Pearl, executive director of the Washington Center for the Book, into such heady company? She's the model for a 5-inch-tall plastic "action figure" by Seattle-based Accoutrements, parent company of Ballard's Archie McPhee store, where zany meets kitschy meets glow-in-the-dark.
Granted, librarians aren't known for Terminator-style stunts. Rarely do they need to be faster than a speeding bullet or leap tall buildings in a single bound.
Pearl herself comes across as modest and unassuming, but she's an unabashed booster of her profession: "The role of a librarian is to make sense of the world of information. If that's not a qualification for superhero-dom, what is?"
Amen, says Mark Pahlow, owner of Accoutrements. In addition to historical characters, he looks for action figures in "people in unusual or underappreciated jobs."
"Nancy is the quintessential librarian!" Pahlow said, " ... She is an iron fist inside a velvet glove. And she does not take herself too seriously."
Let the big toymakers crank out combat characters and toy military equipment, Pahlow said. "We have to be unlike them to survive."
Seattle City Librarian Deborah Jacobs, Pearl's boss, said anyone who doesn't view a librarian as a potent force doesn't understand the job. "Ideas are more powerful than bombs," she said. "Information is the way to take over the world."
Pearl, with the library for 10 years, does book reviews on public radio KUOW-FM (94.9) during "The Beat" at 2 p.m. Mondays. But she's best known for "If All of Seattle Read the Same Book," an effort to build community connections through an appreciation of books.
That campaign has been emulated in cities across the country — even in other countries — and is a key reason Pearl was recently chosen to receive the 2003 Washington Humanities Award. Jack Faris, board chairman of Humanities Washington, said the same-book idea "may be the single most significant public-humanities program in the past 10 years."
But what's that got to do with being immortalized as a toy?
Pahlow and Pearl, who met four years ago, both serve on the board of bookclubpartner.com, an organization that helps book clubs and promotes literacy.
At a dinner party last year, Pahlow was talking about the success of his company's Jesus action figure, and the potential for others. Why not make a librarian, someone asked. And why not use Pearl as the model, asked someone else.
But even after Pahlow said he wanted to do it, Pearl didn't know he was serious until he called her earlier this year and said, "We need to set a time for you to go to Mukilteo and be digitized." Pahlow's action figures are designed here and made in China.
Pearl, 58, enjoyed sitting with a group of creative twentysomethings who batted around ideas about what the action figure might do, or carry, and what attributes — such as likes and dislikes — would be detailed on the package.
How about a cardigan sweater draped over the shoulders? Or glasses on a chain? Those were considered and rejected, Pearl said.
To Pearl's delight, the figure will be holding a (removable) copy of her new book, "Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment and Reason." The book, Pearl's third, is being published by Seattle's Sasquatch Books and is due out in September.
No action figure can exist without action; Pahlow said talk boiled down to two options: Put the figure's hair in a bun that could pop off, or have her right arm rise to put a finger in front of her lips in a silent shushing gesture.
"The ejectable hair bun had many technical hurdles to overcome and we thought doing two clichés was over the top," he said. "So, we went with the shushing action. It gives the figure a certain dignity."
Pearl predicts that the shushing motion — triggered by a button on the doll's back — will determine "which librarians have a sense of humor." She likes to believe that today's librarians are secure enough in their work that they won't take offense at the old cliché.
The action-figure line will continue, Pahlow said, with a range of historical and contemporary characters. Also in the pipeline: Ludwig van Beethoven and another figure with strong Seattle appeal: TV clown J.P. Patches, host of a local children's show on KIRO-TV for 23 years.
Pahlow's experience in the amusement biz goes back to childhood. When he was 8, he and a brother ran wires from a toy train transformer to a metal patio chair — and got neighborhood kids to pay a nickel for the privilege of being zapped.
He expects interest in the Nancy Pearl doll to be strongest in Seattle, where she is best known. But Pahlow said he's already received inquiries about it from librarians around the country. "We've discovered librarians are very networked and seem to know about everything before it happens."
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org