Earth can be a stressful planet, and humans rely on all kinds of things to cope with it: booze, television, rock and roll, and prayer among them.

Shirley Sanborne depends on 600 teddy bears to keep her life together.

"I used to be a very high-strung grouch," Mrs. Sanborne, 39, said yesterday at the Timonium Fairgrounds. "But now I have more than 600 bears in a two-bedroom apartment, and when you come home and see those faces you can't stay mad. They tranquilize you."

Said her husband, John: "And they keep moving in."

Mr. Sanborne, 36, and his wife had traveled from their bear-cluttered home in Laconia, N.H., to the sixth "Magic of Teddy Bears" convention at the fairgrounds.

The husband seemed a bit bewildered in the huge exhibition hall filled with thousands of handmade toy bears -- hippie bears and Santa bears and hillbilly bears costing hundreds of dollars each.

"It's hard for me," said Mr. Sanborne, an auto mechanic who bought his wife her first teddy bear in 1985 and now finds himself sharing her and their apartment with hundreds of them. "I don't know one bear from another. I used to be able to buy bears for her as presents, but I can't anymore."

Mrs. Sanborne said her collection is valuable enough to enable her to move out of the cramped apartment and buy a house if she were willing to part with any of them.

Asked if a real financial crisis would prompt her to sell off the bears, Mr. Sanborne said: "She'd sell my trucks first. I'd be walking."

Teddy bears, fourth among American collectibles behind stamps, coins and dolls, are a multi-million dollar-a-year industry, according to Donna L. Harrison, who has organized the convention since it began.

Why teddy bears?

"That's the magic, the unanswerable," said Ms. Harrison, who got mixed up in bears by following a friend to doll shows. "The teddy bear is the symbol of love."

And many dollars.

"People like to put their money into things they can hug, they like JTC to watch the money appreciate, the investment isn't in a bank, it's on the mantel," she said. "People who bought antique bears two or three years ago for $2,000 see that it's worth $6,000 now. You can only do that with a lucky stock."

Said Nancy Fields, an assistant to Ms. Harrison: "I went to dinner not long ago in Amherst, Mass., with four people and a $14,000 bear. I thought, 'This is crazy; I'm at dinner with a bear.' "

The bear's owner, she said, did not want to let that investment out of her sight.

Believed to be the world's most valuable teddy bear is Alfonzo, a 1908 red Steiff animal originally owned by Princess Xenia Georgievna of Russia. (It was not at the convention.) Ian Pout, who now owns the bear, paid $19,580 for it at an auction in 1989.

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