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Column: America’s oldest children’s bookstore is struggling in the pandemic. But there’s hope

Maureen Palacios at Once Upon a Time Bookstore in Montrose with her daughter Jessica Palacios.
Maureen Palacios, left, owner of Once Upon a Time Bookstore, with her daughter Jessica Palacios. The country’s oldest children’s bookstore is struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Once upon a time, in the hills above Los Angeles, where owls hoot, bear cubs frolic and deer trip daintily down the street, there lived a family with two little girls, named Jessica and Amelia, who loved to read.

Almost every week, their mother would take them to a little bookstore on the main street of their town. It was called Once Upon a Time and it had lots of toys and puppets they could play with and, most important, shelves and shelves of every kind of book for children. The girls loved the little bookstore, which changed with the season and the holidays but was always busy and filled with all sorts of people.

Then one day in 2003, something terrible happened. The owner of Once Upon a Time, who had opened the store in 1966, said she was going to retire. She wanted to sell the little bookstore but couldn’t find anyone to buy it, so she was afraid it would have to close.

A girl pets a cat at Once Upon a Time bookstore.
Elli Tatiyants, 7, of Glendale, plays with the bookstore’s resident cat, Pippi.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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The two little girls were very sad. Jessica was so sad that she wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times, begging someone to buy the store. When her mother, Maureen, read the letter, she talked with her husband — and together they decided they would save the little bookstore that their daughters and so many other children loved.

It would be nice to end the story here with “and they lived happily ever after,” but “ever after” is a very long time, and running a small family business takes a lot of hard work, especially when people buy so many things, including books, online.

But Maureen and her family loved books and children and their little town and the little town loved them back. People came from all around to spend time in the pretty little bookstore in Montrose, buying books and cards and toys. Sometimes they would meet authors, who would read to the children and sign their books. Sometimes Maureen brought those authors to the schools nearby to meet more children and their teachers, and she was always happy to search around and find the books teachers wanted their students to read.

Chevalier’s and Vroman’s have struggled to stay afloat because of COVID-19. With the imminent holiday season, they’re urging readers to buy more earlier.

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Jessica and Amelia grew up and became young women but they still worked in the bookstore when they weren’t in school — along with many other kids, because Maureen believed that loving a town meant giving lots of its high-school students their first jobs. Everyone on the staff loved to read, and no one, including Maureen, was ever too busy to talk with kids or parents about what the best books were for someone who liked magic or mystery or stories from history.

A girl in a mask looks at a yellow rack filled with books at Once Upon a Time bookstore.
Eva Mayo, 3, of La Crescenta browses through books at Once Upon a Time bookstore.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

So for many years, the little bookstore was always bustling; it hosted Harry Potter parties and holiday parties and gave out candy to trick-or-treaters at Halloween. The staff took books to festivals and local events and even the Christmas parade.

And they tried not to get mad whenever anyone said the word “Amazon.”

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Then something even more terrible happened, this very year. A global pandemic broke out and made a lot of people all around the world very sick — so sick that many of them died. “We have to stop people from getting sick,” people cried. Governments everywhere shut down businesses and told everyone to stay home so they wouldn’t spread the virus.

After months of this, some businesses closed forever. But Maureen and her family really do want a happily ever after.

So they are fighting to save Once Upon a Time, the oldest children’s bookstore in the country, one more time.

On a recent weekday morning, Maureen Palacios tried to describe how they were going to do that, and it essentially boils down to: Try everything.

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Exterior of Once Upon a Time bookstore in Montrose.
Once Upon a Time is relying more heavily on online sales as foot traffic along Honolulu Avenue has gone down.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

In the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Once Upon a Time was able to remain open with curbside service because Maureen’s relationships with local teachers gave the store status as an essential business. Schools were closed, and teachers couldn’t get to the books they were assigning, so they offered PDFs.

“But a lot of people don’t like to read PDFs,” Maureen says, “so teachers told parents they could buy the books here.”

Vroman’s Bookstore is just one of many independent bookstores in danger of closing as a result of the pandemic. It’s not too late to save them.

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The staff set up a system by which people could order books over the phone for curbside pickup, leaving payment in a basket. Occasionally, even that process posed difficulties. “When one English class was reading ‘The Outsiders,’ we were worried about social distancing, so we gave each school period its own time slot. It took a couple of weeks.”

Some private schools reached out and asked that books be shipped to students at home. “So. Much. Shipping,” Maureen says. “But everyone, all of the teachers, were in a state of shock in the spring. Everyone was just trying to get through the semester. And we all thought it was just going to be a month or two.”

Matt Mayo holds a selection of Christmas-themed kids' books at Once Upon a Time bookstore.
Matt Mayo holds a selection of Christmas-themed books. Like many bookstores, Once Upon a Time is counting on the holidays for a sales boost.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

Jessica, now 26, began redesigning the store’s website so customers could order and pay online. As the months stretched on, many customers began calling in orders. Maureen added a cellphone line so texting was possible, and when they could, staffers would use the phone to FaceTime with customers, creating a virtual shopping experience by “walking” them though the store. They also began offering limited delivery for those who did not feel comfortable coming to the curb, a service they continued even after the store reopened in May.

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This very morning, she says, after working until almost midnight to fill online and phone orders, she and Jessica delivered to eight addresses before coming to the store. “I now know more about this area than I ever have,” she says, laughing. “Some of them are easy, but you get into those hills of La Cañada and man, I’m lost.”

The store’s front door is always open now and walk-ins are possible — there is a gate at the entrance to control numbers (only four customers at a time in the small space), ensure that everyone is masked and keep the very popular store cat, Pippi, from wandering off — but an appointment is advisable.

Once Upon a Time is my local bookstore (my son was for a time one of its high school hires), and I have been a regular visitor to this haven on Honolulu Avenue in Montrose for more years than I care to contemplate. But I hadn’t crossed its threshold in seven months. Once I did, the familiar sight of well-filled bookshelves, many topped with adorable animal plushies, of Shakespeare notepads and quill pens, stacks of seasonal picture books and book club picks ... all filled me with a sense, unfamiliar these days, of comfort and security.

The silence, however, is a bit strange. “I know,” Maureen says. “We miss the sounds of kids so much, the laughter, the squeals, even the sight of all the plushies being tossed around.”

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At this moment, she is overseeing a decor transition from Halloween to Christmas. Halloween, she concedes, has been a bit of a bust. Although portions of Honolulu Avenue are busy, with extended restaurant seating, the businesses on either side of Once Upon a Time, and the one across the street, are closed. Without the normal foot traffic, the store’s windows could not tempt the usual numbers; even the most adorable pumpkin pillows and spooky candle holders were a difficult sell.

Holiday cards and toys are stacked on a table at Once Upon a Time bookstore.
Holiday cards and toys fill the shelves Once Upon a Time; Halloween was pretty much a bust and the store is skipping Thanksgiving decor this year.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)

“We have flipped our business model,” Maureen says, “but we still need more foot traffic.”

So she’s skipping the usual, though always brief, foray into Thanksgiving and going straight to the winter holidays, upon which so many retail hopes are pinned. A sign in her front window says, “Plan for Hope in 2021,” and she, like many bookstore owners, is hoping people will remember to support their local businesses during the holiday season. The fourth quarter, always important, is now do or die for many.

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The pandemic-forced cancellation of the L.A. Times Festival of Books in spring took a large bite out of the store’s midyear income — Once Upon a Time, which for the last few years has been the special vendor for the festival’s children’s stage, always sells a lot of books during the popular two-day event.

“We usually have three booths and bring in about 75 authors,” Maureen says.

But she is hopeful that the newly imagined 3½-week virtual version of the fest, which began Oct. 18, will help. Once Upon a Time is a major participant, acting as seller for Nov. 1 appearances by five authors, including Natalie Portman (in conversation with Times film critic Justin Chang) and Viet Thanh Nguyen and Ellison Nguyen, authors of “Chicken of the Sea.”

Maureen Palacios, owner of Once Upon a Time, stands in her bookstore wearing a mask and talking with customers.
Maureen Palacios usually employs local teens at her store, but right now, she says, “we really can’t afford to have anyone without good sales skills.”
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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Yet even the success of online ordering has challenges: Temporary closures and layoffs at publishing houses have made books increasingly hard to find in a timely fashion. Once Upon a Time prides itself on packaging books in an inviting way — each is kept pristine with careful wrapping — and that takes time, effort and staff. Most of the store’s employees are part time, and after keeping all eight on the payroll for many months, Maureen has had to let two of them go. And though she continues to pay local children to write reviews, visible on every shelf, she has had to put her cherished tradition of hiring local teens on hold. “It’s terrible, but we really can’t afford to have anyone without good sales skills right now,” she says.

Hence her own extended hours.

Still, support has come from many places. “We have a lot of authors who are loyal to us, because we have always worked hard to do whatever we can to sell books so authors have a chance to be seen,” Maureen says. Stuart Gibbs recently did a virtual book launch from the store for his latest, “Spy School Revolution,” selling hundreds of copies all over the country. And Jimmy Fallon chose Once Upon a Time as one of five bookstores to host a Facebook Live launch on Tuesday of his new book, “5 More Sleeps ’til Christmas.”

The schedule unveiled Thursday also features Ayad Akhtar, Marlon James and actor Henry Winkler. The online festival — 25 events marking 25 years — begins Oct. 18.

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Indeed, Once Upon a Time’s Facebook page is as bustling as the store itself once was — with staff picks, book clubs, story times and an upcoming reading seriescalled “Cocoa, Chair and Chat.” Pippi is the star of its Instagram.

But the surprise social media hit has been “Bunny vs. …..,” in which bunnies battle for plushie dominance. The short series, which was filmed in the store and screened on its Facebook page, is a perfect example of Once Upon a Time’s “try everything” pandemic credo.

“Easter came and went, and we had all these bunny plushies left,” Maureen says. “So we started doing this very silly short competition between the bunnies and other animals, like dragons, and people loved it.”

Books and toys on shelves at Once Upon a Time bookstore.
Plush toys are traditionally big sellers at Once Upon a Time.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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The plushies began flying off the shelves and now, many months later, fans are clamoring for another installment.

“Maybe,” Maureen says, surveying the hefty pile of Halloween merchandise being moved aside for Christmas, “we should see how Bunny does against witches.”

Once upon a time, there was a bunny, a witch and a clever family that worked very hard during the great pandemic of 2020. And with the help of people who believe in books and family businesses, there is a good chance they will save America’s oldest children’s bookstore. Again.


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