No wonder the gnomes went underground.

Ever since that book was written about them, people have been going bonkers. The book itself has been a best seller for over a year -- at $17.50 -- and now we have a sequel, "Faeries," with the same combination of fine watercolors and handwritten, deadpan text. The only difference is that this one is written by two Englishmen, while "Gnomes" was by two Dutchmen.

In any case, the American publisher, Harry N. Abrams Inc., is wearing a great big grin. A release entitled, "The Little People Who Mean Big Business" mentions $10 million in gross retail sales.

That's not just from the book, of course, which has sold a mere 600,000 copies. That's from the whole merchandising megillah, which is trying very hard to be the biggest thing since Mickey Mouse.

There's the poster and the calendar, the note paper and jigsaw puzzles, the bumper stickers, buttons and a cardboard gnome home "complete with gnome family & mice." There's the gnome bean bag, the sculptured pillow, the jewelry, the Christmas tree ornaments, the needlepoint and crocheting kits, the picture frames, wristwatches, wall clocks, scented soap, ball point pens, T-shirts, infantwear, turtlenecks, laundry bags and backpacks.

There is a gnome party manual, a menu gastrognomique (served with cabernet sauvignome) and apparently a cadre of admen working fulltime to create such puns as "There's no place like gnome" and "To gnome is to love me."

All of this information is presented to prepare you for the fact that a promotion called "Gnomes Day" was held Saturday at Seven Corners mall. This event featured, according to a cover letter, the "direct, on-air participation" of a local TV station and "a host of surprises including the rare presence of a real live gnome, being flown down from New York..."

We attended Gnomes Day. We missed the real live gnome. But along the mall we found various electrified, stuffed gnomes doing various cute things. One was swinging on a swing. One was pouring water into a dish which never overflowed. One was chasing an electrified bumblebee circling on a wire above it.

There was even a gnome family living in a curaway house, and you could see them setting the table, going to the well, cooking, lugging a Christmas tree and sneaking a look at the presents hidden in the attic.

Now, these were not just any old gnomes, they were the official Abrams gnomes with red pointed hats, beards, stubby bodies, apple cheeks and wholesome old-world grins. They moved with eerie, mesmerized precision and in fact looked rather depressed. They ranged from 1 to 2 feet high. (Actual gnomes are about 6 inches.)

Nobody at the mall seemed to know about Gnomes Day. Even at Brentano's the clerk just said, "What? We got the book. What day? I dunno. Next."

A woman gazed at the cutaway house. "I bet Mama would have a fit over that," she remarked. A mysterious statement. But then, the whole business is mysterious from beginning to end. What is this craziness over gnomes? Why are 14 different TV producers right this minute squabbling over the film rights for an hour-long special on gnomes next fall?

You can ask the pop philosophers and psychiatrists and assorted wise men, but you don't really have to. We all know about the Search for Wonder in a world where people increasingly act like machines -- from astronauts who greet the very moon in their voxelectronica monotones, to the executives who go around with beepers on their belts (not quite yet implanted in their brains) -- a world of nutrition pills and cardboard-tasting food, televised adventure and antiseptic sex and books telling us how to feel and answers we don't even know the questions for.

It is our thirst for wonder that spawned the science-fiction industry, that made demigods out of Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, that boomed the rabbit saga "Watership Down," that turned Hollywood more than ever into a fantasy factrory.

Years ago a science-fiction writer predicted that science-fiction would turn gradually toward the old-fashined fairy tale. Whoever he was, he was profundly right.

Back at the Seven Corners mall, it was the adults who paid the most attention to the gnomes. The kids were more interested in Santa Claus, who roamed the corridors wearing steelrimmed glasses and carring someone's business card.

"They're comin' in today all right," he said. "Thought maybe with the rain they wouldn't. Been sorta light up to now. I been here since 8. I'll be puttin' in a 'leven-hour day today."