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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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The books would seem to be hopelessly out of date, with their malt-shop milieu and a heroine who struggles to make nutritious but economical dinners for her family so she can use the savings for prom dresses.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.

However, Weber mania appears to be at its peak, based on the prices listed for her books, and the fervency of the online auctions featuring her titles. Plans for an organization and newsletter, floated two years ago, never materialized, but aficionados share their Beany passion through a daily Internet digest. (Recent discussions include Martie Malone's fitness as a parent, and whether Carlton, the boy next door, really was the best man for Beany.)

In fact, her fans worry that they inadvertently inflated the prices for her books, which as recently as five years ago went begging at $15 to $20 a copy. Now some online booksellers list titles at prices ranging from $47 (for a paperback of "Leave it to Beany") to $678 (for a signed copy of "The More the Merrier").

Caveat Beany emptor

It's unclear if anyone has ever paid quite this much, although Denver-based bookseller Marita Dougherty, whose location gives her an edge in finding signed Webers, notes: "In the last year, I've met more high-end collectors, more willing to spend the money. If you're making $200 an hour as a corporate attorney, what's $100 for a book you really want? Weber is as hot as it's ever been."

Baltimore bookseller Drusilla Jones, who specializes in children's books at her eponymous store, says: "If they're paying $100 for an ex-library copy, they're crazy!" Then again, after 22 years in the children's books business, Jones already knows that girls-series collectors -- whether their heroines are Nancy Drew to Judy Bolton to Trixie Belden -- are crazy.

"It's the desire to have something that's hard to get, and the fact that you'll have something that no one else has," she theorizes.

But Beany collectors say they'd like to see the books back in print, which would actually deflate the value of the older books.

"I remember when I said $30 is too much for 'Tarry Awhile,' " says Stiritz in Arkansas, who started reading the books two years ago, after hearing about them from Maud Hart Lovelace fans. Late last year, she paid $124.50 for the same title, via an Internet auction. "But I only paid $50 for 'The Beany Malone Cookbook!' "

At least Stiritz is paying top dollar for rare titles. Bookseller Dougherty says the scarcity of some titles has led to wildly inflated prices for books that aren't so hard to find. She advises: "The toughest ones are 'Pick a New Dream,' 'Welcome Stranger,' 'A Bright Star Falls." The next three hardest-to-find are "The More the Merrier," "Tarry Awhile" and "Something Borrowed, Something Blue."

Others are -- or should be -- more affordable. "Meet the Malones," for example, is on sale for $26 at Drusilla's Books. Copies of "I Met a Boy I Used to Know," listed at one bookseller at $285, sold for less than $50 in two recent ebay auctions.

But why do professional women from throughout the country yearn to re-read stories about a girl whose greatest happiness is cooking for her family? A Yale professor, Laura Green, writing in Salon magazine in October 1997, noted that the Beany books and others of their ilk provided an escape from turbulent times.

"I was an unathletic, dreamy bookworm in a cold New England college town, and for a few pre-adolescent years around 1970, [these books] invited me into a soothing fantasy universe whose problems and rituals were both similar to those in the real world and as mysterious as the customs of an unknown tribe," wrote Green. "The world outside might be cold but the family circle was warm and safe."

Green goes on to trace the seismic changes in children's literature in the 1970s, when Judy Blume and others began writing ultra-realistic books dealing with subjects at which Weber barely hinted -- teen sexuality, drug use. Weber's books, which had been produced largely for library sales, went out of print.

For most Beany Malone fans -- who lived primarily in isolation before the advent of the Internet -- there was a long-held fantasy of Denver as a Weber Holy Land, in which her books could be found at every weekend yard sale.

Alas, says granddaughter Kathi DeFrancis, Weber's large family has only one complete collection. They recently contemplated buying a copy of one book, but balked at the $75 asking price.

"My aunt said we had one full set and that was enough," says DeFrancis, to whom "Beany Malone" is dedicated. "And I said, OK, as long as they're willed to me."

Laura Lippman, a Lenora Mattingly Weber fan since her teens, named her racing greyhound for Dulcie Lungaarde, one of Beany's good friends. She really, really needs a copy of "Welcome, Stranger."

Finding Beany

You don't need to go online to find Lenora Mattingly Weber's books. Many libraries still have them or can get them through interlibrary loan programs. Also check library discard sales. In recent years, "Beany and the Beckoning Road" and "Make a Wish For Me," with dust jackets, were found at sales held by the Enoch Pratt Free Library. (And they're mine, mine, mine!)

Used bookstores, such as Drusilla's Books, 817 Howard St., also are happy to conduct searches. (Note: If you request a search, then find the title on your own, it's bad form not to notify the bookseller.)

Online book search sites include Advanced Book Exchange (http: //www.abe.com) and Bibliofind (http: //www.bibliofind.com).

Weber's books are frequently auctioned at Internet auction sites such as ebay (http: //www.ebay.com). Recent sales have ranged from $20 for "Meet the Malones" to $124.50 for "Pick a New Dream."

Members of a list serve devoted to Weber sometimes sell their duplicates. To join the list serve, go to http: //lyris1.telelists.com , click on "teleport users lists," and then click on "weber-l" and follow the step-by-step instructions.

What about the temptation to check books out of the library, then declare them lost, paying the relatively small replacement cost? Denver bookseller Marita Dougherty says she heard that a Florida library lost its entire Weber collection through such thefts.

But one fan, Rosemary Parker, says no true Beany fan would ever do this "because we all remember what happened when she took the oil pot from the construction site in 'The More the Merrier.' " (Beany almost lost her beau, Andy Kern, over the mix-ups that ensued, and she ended up returning the pot to soothe her guilty conscience.)

As you shop, remember this advice offered to the young Malones by doddering newspaperman Emerson Worth: "The highest price you can pay for something is to get it for nothing."

A Beany excerpt

From "Make a Wish For Me," published in 1956 by Thomas Y. Crowell Co.:

"While Beany waited, her eyes rested on a manikin wearing a breath-taking formal. Beany gave a sigh of pure longing. The strapless basque was of black lace. The ankle-length skirt was a billowing cloud of white tulle with a facing of black tulle and black lace medallions edging it. She reached over and edged the price tag out from where it was carefully tucked out of sight under the bodice. Eeks! -- $89.50 -- no wonder it was so mouthwatering. It was not for Beany Malone, who dressed herself in the five dollars a week Eve Baxter paid her."

The Weber books

Before she died in 1971, Denver writer Lenora Mattingly Weber wrote 14 Beany Malone books (15 if you count the cookbook), beginning in 1943, then eight Belford family books:

The Malone books "Meet the Malones" "Beany Malone" "Leave it to Beany!" "Beany and the Beckoning Road" "Beany Has a Secret Life" "Make a Wish For Me" "Happy Birthday, Dear Beany" "The More the Merrier" "A Bright Star Falls" "Welcome, Stranger" "Pick a New Dream" "Tarry Awhile" "Something Borrowed, Something Blue" "Come Back, Wherever You Are" "The Beany Malone Cookbook"

The Belford books "Don't Call Me Katie Rose"* "The Winds of March"* "A New and Different Summer"* "I Met a Boy I Used to Know"* "Angel in Heavy Shoes" "How Long is Always?" "Hello My Love, Goodbye"* "Sometimes a Stranger"* * Denotes cameo by Beany Malone Buell

Pub Date: 1/04/99

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