How heartening to discover an independent bookstore that has been in existence nearly fifty years and has not only survived the recession, but is thriving! It’s the award-winning Once Upon a Time in Montrose CA (www.shopconceuponatime.com). We’re talking today with Maureen Palacios, one of a growing number of bookstore owners who got into the business not because they had experience in the field, but because they thought their town needed to have a bookstore! Once Upon a Time has quite an ownership story.
MUF: Is Once Upon A Time truly the oldest children’s bookstore? Maureen: Well, in 2008 Publisher’s Weekly wrote an article about old children’s bookstores and their research indicated we were the oldest, having started in 1966 and still operating. Of course, there have been stores started before 1966 but alas, they have gone out of business.
MUF:What inspired you to buy it from its founder and keep it going?Maureen: Our family had been customers of Once Upon a Time for many years when early in 2003, youngest daughter Amelia, age 8), was picking out books to read at the store. She turned to me and said, “Mama, we have all the books.” I noticed things were very bare on the shelves and inquired about the lack of inventory. A staffer reluctantly said the store was for sale and would probably close if no buyer came through. This infuriated my children, especially my older daughter Jessica, age 9, who took matters into her own hands. A week or so after our last trip to Once Upon a Time, I was surprised to a call from a newspaper reporter asking to speak with Jessica. He had received a fax from one Jessica Palacios who, apparently, wrote a Letter to the Editor of our paper in pencil asking someone to help the nice lady sell her store and lamenting where would she buy her 5th Harry Potter book if Once Upon a Time was not there? This was prepared (in pencil) and faxed off – all without my knowledge! The newspaper not only printed her letter, but also an article about the shop and tough times.
By then, the founder was basically asking anyone who walked into the store if they would like to buy a children’s independent bookstore. We walked in, and she asked me. I said –“I don’t know anything about books – I fire people” (My Human Relations background). She said, “But I’ll train you!”
My husband and I agreed we could not let the shop go out of our community, so we submitted a bid to the founder. After a few days, we were informed we had the store! We had no knowledge or experience in bookselling, retail or buying. I had to quit my successful Human Resources management career of 20 years to learn the trade from the founder. Blessedly, the community responded enthusiastically, my children ages 8 and 9 read ALL the books available ,wrote reviews, and hand sold books to customers. The store has gone on, wea moved down the block after a nasty landlord tripled our rent, forged ahead with ebooks, and weathered the recession of 2008. This will be our best sales year in 49 years. We have significantly expanded our outreach by committing to the large Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and partnering with 4 publishers and manning 3 booths – including the main stage Kids Stage booth – and hosting/selling 40 authors over a 2 day festival.
This year, after 49 years, we won what many in kids’ bookselling consider the pinnacle of success, the 2015 Pannell Award Children’s Specialty Bookstore award, and were presented the award at BEA in New York by the Woman’s National Book Association.
MUF: Describe the atmosphere you have created in your shop. What do you want your customers, especially young readers, to experience when they visit?
Maureen:It starts with our front window displays. We have won awards with our creations to draw people into our store and to whet their appetite on what’s inside. Kids love our windows.
Even at 1200 sq. feet we pack great product in. We like to appeal to a more sophisticated child and have blue-hued silhouette murals depicting the sections of our bookstore on the walls and not primary colors. We play classical music as I do not generally enjoy most children’s music (too sappy, too trite) being a former paid musician myself. I don’t think it’s necessary to dumb down our store for kids, as they are always surprising & delighting us. A red barn (which houses the few hardcover adult books we have) has been greeting customers by the door for generations, beckoning the younger set to explore inside the barn and play friends and neighbors with open windows.
MUF: Your collection has been described as “curated.” How do you choose the books to carry in your store?
Maureen: Great design, artfully, whimsically or imaginatively drawn on covers. For most picture books, the cover art MUST convey a sense of style as no one will bother even looking at the text if they don’t care to pick it up. We do not carry self-published titles – oh, maybe only one – because the books must sell their space, and the self-pubbed titles cover art can’t hold a candle to the vast majority of our inventory. Middle grade and YA books also must have appealing covers and the book should have received good strong reviews and/or one of my staff has read the book. We do not take everything from a publisher – which is much more difficult than it sounds. Being discerning and knowing at least 3 customers for a particular title will help ensure we stock the book.
MUF: Since we are middle-grade authors, we have to ask: what titles new or old, fiction or nonfiction do you find yourself recommending to readers aged eight to twelve these days?
Maureen: Newer releases: Anything by Stuart Gibb, Kate DiCamillo, Cynthia Kadohata, Pam Munoz Ryan, Katherine Applegate, Brandon Mull, Lisa McMann, Margaret Haddix, Gary Schmidt, Tom Angleberger, Raina Telgemeir, Kazu Kibuishi. Misty of Chincoteague is still recommended, as is The Phantom Tollbooth. Cynthia Kadohata’s stories are so thoughtful and beautifully written, as well as Thanhha Lai’s. Gary Schmidt’s writing is always welcome and any book by Kate DiCamillo. Tracy Holczer is our local favorite with her “Secret Hum of a Daisy.” And we can’t wait to sell Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell and Blackthorn Key by newbie Kevin Sands.
Nonfiction is usually the Who is ..series, or the fantastic picture book biographies – my personal favorite: GINGERBREAD FOR LIBERTY by Mara Rockliff and delightfully illustrated by Vincent X Kirsch. Of course, we LOVE Jon Scieszka’s science series as well as Ken Jennings books.
MUF: Many of the most successful independent bookstores maintain close connections to their communities, is this also true of Once Upon a Time?
Maureen: Being a customer first, I understood that just having longer hours in the day and opening seven days a week was important to our community. We host AYSO teams, donate books, ARCs and gift cards to almost every school in the Crescenta Valley area and beyond, and hire high school students for their first job and give them scholarships to go to college. We place hundreds of authors in schools as well as partner with our local and main library for events and programming. We donate and provide speakers to PTAs, new parent groups, non-profit organizations and hospitals.
I have recently been honored by the Children’s Literacy Council of Southern California with the Dorothy C McKenzie Award. This award, named for the organization’s founder, is given periodically in recognition of an individual’s distinguished service to the field of children’s literatur.
MUF: Have well-known middle grade authors appeared at your store? Do you have events or programs coming up that would be of interest to middle-graders?
Maureen: We have had the privilege of hosting many well-known authors such as Katherine Applegate, Jon Scieszka, Pseudonymous Bosch, Lisa McMann, Richard Peck, Margaret Haddix, Brandon Mull, Cornelia Funke, Mac Barnett, Raina Telgemier, and many more. We also love to discover & present to our community a new talent, who writes exciting and engaging books for middle grade.
We are thrilled to be hosting on Jan. 3rd KRISTEN KITTSCHER for her book launch party of her Rose Parade-themed middle grade mystery TIARA ON THE TERRACE. At the end of January on the 30th, we will celebrate COMICS SQUAD DAY! with Jenni Holm and Cecil Castelucci.
MUF: If a family came from out of town to visit your shop. Would there be family-friendly places nearby where they could get a snack or meal after shopping? Are there other unique sights or activities nearby that they shouldn’t miss?
Maureen: Anyone coming to our shop is in for a treat, as we are a part of Montrose Shopping Park, a 3-block long outside, tree-shaded shopping & dining area that has been dubbed “Old Town Montrose” for its quaint, mid-western architecture. Dozens of movies, TV series and commercials are shot here in the park. We have had NCIS – Los Angeles, NCIS, Sons of Anarchy, House, a film directed by Clint Eastwood, most of Will Ferrell movies and many more shoot here. Most of the stores are independently owned and no big box stores at all. Right next to us, there is a fabulous BBQ joint – Zeke’s – and the next 2 storefronts are terrific restaurants. There’s Italian, Armenian, Mexican, Japanese, Sushi and more restaurants. We are located about 1 mile from a beautiful botanical garden destination – DESCANSO GARDENS – that offers families a respite from the hustle and bustle of LA with themed gardens, world-famous Camellia forest and acres of gorgeous plants. Many times I give a visiting author a day pass to the Gardens between school visits and an evening event so they can rest.
Thanks, Maureen for introducing us to your shop and neighborhood. It all sounds so inviting! Readers, have you visited Once Upon a Tome or do you think you would like to? Please comment here.
Sue Cowing is the author of the middle-grade puppet-and-boy novel, You Will Call Me Drog (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012)