The newspaper ad promised Boston Terrier puppies and there they were, gamboling about an Annapolis breeder's kitchen, five or six of them, squirmy, sweet and wild.
Tom Boeke knew which one it would be after only a minute. The one that sashayed right over, sat down and gave him some heart-melting puppy eye.
"You know how you just know sometimes?" says Boeke who a few days later fixed a red bow onto the pup's collar thinking he was giving his friend Michael Muller a dog for Christmas.
Little did he know, he gave him a furry muse.
This fall, nearly six years after Muller met the dog he would name Mirabelle, Muller is no longer a first grade teacher. He's a Baltimore artist who's particularly known for fine art photographs of a certain black and white dog. He and Boeke are partners in a venture that sells everything from Mirabelle shirts to skateboards. And Workman Publishing just released a trio of children's picture books -- written by Muller -- about a terrier named Mirabelle.
"I always say I give all the credit to Mirabelle," Muller says. "I had the honor to be inspired by her."
Mirabelle isn't Muller's first dog -- not even his first Boston Terrier. When Boeke gave her to him in 2006, she became the third Boston in his household. He just loves the breed's compact bodies and boundless energy, the alertness in their pointy ears -- even the snoring and grunting that comes as a package deal with their flat snouts.
"They are such people dogs," he says, "so inquisitive and interested in the world around them. Certain people see beauty in certain ways and I see a pushed-in little nose as beauty."
Muller will tell anyone that like Boeke, he sensed something different about Mirabelle even as a puppy. A certain worldliness, a way of knowing just what he wanted from her that had nothing to do with training.
Mirabelle came to work every day to the Rehoboth Beach gallery Muller and Boeke had opened together. The other dogs did not.
She'd snooze in her bed behind the counter and when a customer would come in, she'd greet them gently. If folks wanted to take her picture, she was always willing. Sometimes she'd show uncanny salesmanship, standing gamely by the rack of cards with her picture on them.
"She was meant to be our shop girl," Muller says.
He named her, in fact, after the title character in the Steve Martin novella, "Shop Girl."
Because of the faltering economy and a difficult location, gallery business was slow. So Muller and Boeke decided to advertise. On a whim, Muller put one of his photos of Mirabelle in the ad -- a shot of her sitting on a leather chair, staring down the camera, ears up.
"People came in saying, 'Who's that little dog in the ad?'" Muller remembers, adding Mirabelle not only got traffic to the shop, she got people to open their wallets. "The economy was such that nobody was buying thousand-dollar pieces but they bought a Mirabelle card for $3.50 and a $20 Mirabelle T-shirt."
At some point Muller and Boeke decided Mirabelle was working but the gallery was not. On a buying trip to New York, Muller recalls a soul-searching conversation the two had over dinner. Was this interest in Mirabelle something that could last? Did they have the courage and tenacity to see it through?
"The universe seems to be pushing us in this direction," Muller said they decided. "Let's listen."
Boeke returned to being a full-time physical therapist while he and Muller started a wholesale art card business with everything designed by Muller.
They were pushing their wares at the National Stationery Show at Manhattan's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center when they caught the eye of talent scouts from Workman Publishing.
Raquel Jaramillo, Workman's children's book director, said what turned her head was Muller's fresh, minimalist style — "sophisticated yet adorable."
A book deal was born. Workman released three Mirabelle titles this fall -- "Mirabelle and the Bouncy Red Ball," "Mirabelle and the Butterfly" and "Mirabelle Goes for a Walk," which Muller says was entirely inspired by his daily walks with her around his Union Square neighborhood.
Releasing three at once is unusual, Jaramillo says, done to establish Mirabelle as a character right out of the box.
In the books, Mirabelle is rendered with an oversize head and huge, upright ears. The eyes are wide and alert. Muller wasn't originally going to put himself in the storyline but Workman insisted, saying his relationship with the dog
the story. And so he became Mr. Muller, Mirabelle's be-spectacled, bow-tied sidekick.
"I thought that the real uniqueness was her relationship with Mr. Muller, that sweet rapport they have between them," Jaramillo says, adding it's very parent-and-child. "Just walking down the block is magical when you're the parent of a child, nothing is taken for granted. That's what Mirabelle brings to play for the reader -- every small tiny moment. Jumping over a puddle becomes an adventure."
In the books — not unlike in real life — Mirabelle and Mr. Muller explore the world together. He learns from the pup's curiosity and joie de vivre.
"She's fascinated by a blowing leaf," Muller says. "If we all could go out and find simple joys how much happier would we be?"
Mirabelle continues to lead Muller and Boeke on adventures. Next year they'll embark on a cross-country promotional tour. In recent weeks they've flitted from one local book event to another — Sunday they'll be signing books and selling Mirabelle merchandise at Merry Mart.
After a book signing last week in Hampden, Muller posted a picture on Mirabelle's Facebook page where he's seated at a table, Mirabelle goods spread out before him and Mirabelle is sitting on his lap. She's got one paw on the table, as if she's the one about to sign something. (She actually does a sort-of autograph — Muller's made stickers of her real paw print and puts them in books next to his signature.)
Even so, at Muller's cozy row house, Mirabelle is just a dog, curling up next to him every night when he goes to sleep and hanging out in his home office during the day while he works. They still walk the neighborhood, she still plays with her now famous bouncy red ball and still enjoys home-cooked meals of chicken and rice — no ordinary kibble for a star.
"She changed the direction of my life," Muller says. "She's an amazing little dog."
IF YOU GO
Catch Michael Muller and Tom Boeke this weekend at Merry Mart where they'll be selling Mirabelle books and other Mirabelle merchandise. Mirabelle herself might make a guest appearance.
at the Patterson
When: Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For more information: merrymartbaltimore.blogspot.com