OUAT turns the page on five decades of being a staple in the community.
By Mary O’KEEFE
For 50 years Once Upon a Time has been the place to go in Montrose for children’s books, but it is so much more than that – it has been the place where kids grow their imagination as they sit on the floor and choose their favorite book, it is where parents, aunts and uncles can get that perfectly unique birthday gift and it is where kids go from being young readers to workers when they have a chance to have a wonderful first job.
This Sunday at noon OUAT will be kicking off its 50th anniversary with a party that includes a five layer cake, story time, a photo booth, raffle prizes and award-winning artist and best selling illustrator David Shannon.
“He is basically a 10-year-old boy in a man’s body,” joked Maureen Palacios, owner of OUAT.
Shannon is a Burbank resident and has been at OUAT in the past including when the bookstore moved from the corner of Ocean View Boulevard and Honolulu Avenue to its present location at 2207 Honolulu Ave., just west of Verdugo Boulevard.
“He was with us at our grand reopening celebration,” Palacios said.
It seemed only fitting Shannon would be at the 50th
celebration. Throughout the years Palacios has asked visiting authors, and there have been a lot, to sign books. The store has kept those books and on Sunday will raffle those books off to customers.
Jane Humphrey founded OUAT in 1966 and from the beginning it was established as a children’s bookstore that didn’t speak down to children but lifted them up. The Palacios family purchased the bookstore from Humphrey in 2003.
“We didn’t change much,” Palacios said. “We kept the foundation [Jane set]… It wasn’t planned really but because I didn’t know anything else and we liked shopping here, I wanted to continue that feel.”
When rumors began that OUAT was to be sold, the community was concerned that this gem would be lost, but Palacios respected not only what Humphrey created but the community as well.
Palacios described Humphrey and her approach to choosing books as more sophisticated than stocking the shelves with fads. She has children and parents who can hardly wait for the next in a series or to tell her their child loved the last book recommended and wanted another recommendation.
It is that personal approach that has Palacios surviving in a world that has been turning to technology. But that doesn’t appear to be what her customers want. In the past she had stocked e-readers but customers were coming in asking for “real” books. And even though local schools supply for free the books for an English class reading list many students come in and buy those books so they can annotate.
In 2008, Publishers Weekly announced that OUAT was the nation’s oldest children’s bookstore and in 2015 the Women’s National Book Association Pannell Award was given to OUAT. Although it is known as a children’s bookstore for the last 40 years, OUAT has an adult book club.
“I have publishers calling me to ask what our book club is reading because we have been so consistent,” Palacios said.
For the last 14 years there has been a mystery novel club that has met at OUAT.
For Palacios, through the good times and the bad times, the community and her staff have been there for support. And there have been some bad times. Three years after she bought OUAT she was diagnosed with colon cancer. The community and friends were there for her.
“That is what our community is about,” she said. “And the [cancer] was fairly bad because I was on clinical trial [medication].”
Palacios was a new business owner when she found out she had cancer, which was difficult for a mother with two young daughters. Then came the news from her landlord that her rent was being increased, and not just a little bit.
The landlord apparently assumed the business would not make money or had his doubts about Palacios’ ability to keep OUAT afloat – she is not certain of the motive – but believed it did come down to money.
“‘Bookstores are not vital to me’ is what was told to me,” she said. “[But] I am a very competitive person.”
It was an emotional time to move from the corner store to her current location and it was the fifth time the store had moved over its 50 years. However, that move was one of the best things that could have happened.
“It didn’t seem like that at the time but this is a terrific location,” she said. “We are still here … and we are able to give kids jobs and I am very proud of what we have done. The illness came and left a scar but it brought the community together.”
Palacios loves her customers and watches as kids grow from young readers to bringing in their own children looking for that perfect book as several generations pass through her shop. But what she is most proud of are those kids that she has been able to employ.
“For me I think a lot of [what makes] OUAT are the kids who have come through here. They represent the community and then that’s what brings life to the community,” she said.
She spoke of kids following in their siblings’ footsteps and working at OUAT.
The employees are required to read and they readily share their opinion of books, which keeps the inventory fresh.
“[Kids] learn the paycheck has their name on it, not their parents’. I have to remind them sometimes that it is not your parents calling in sick – it is you,” Palacios said. “And so you learn those skills as a first job.”
The children’s bookstore has continued to grow with authors often visiting to discuss and sign their books and adding new inventory including eclectic gifts from walking sticks to dainty fairies, all with the same personal touch.
“We haven’t sat on our laurels,” Palacios said. “We keep on going. I am not the type to quit.”