Last month, I attended the Laughing Out Loud For Literacy program at Crescenta Valley High, and I did laugh out loud (much to the annoyance of those around me). The show was put on by Once Upon A Time bookstore, a Montrose icon, and, just like the store’s selections, was geared to both kids and their parents.
On my way out I spotted Jane and Bob Humphrey, who back in 1966 opened Once Upon A Time on Verdugo Road below Montrose. Jane was a young mother with dreams back then and she revealed to a friend her fantasy of opening a children’s bookstore. Her friend had more than dreams. She had money, and she called Jane’s bluff: “You open a bookstore, and I’ll build you a building.”
Once Upon A Time bookstore was built at 3457 Verdugo, and Jane was off and running for the next 37 years. The store joined the Montrose Shopping Park with a move to Honolulu Avenue in ’71, where it bounced to a couple locations before its longest stay at the corner of Ocean View Boulevard and Honolulu. All this time Jane was raising a family; she remembers putting her young son in the display window with a stack of books for the entertainment of both him and passersby.
Jane says she never made money with the store – only friends and a sense of having done something meaningful. “It was the most fulfilling thankless job I ever had,” she told me. By 2003 she was ready to retire, and she put the store up for sale, but there were no takers.
Then, one of those storybook connections happened that saved the bookstore. Maureen and George Palacios’ daughters, 7 and 9 years old, wrote to a local paper, asking “Where am I going to get my fifth Harry Potter book if there is no Once Upon A Time?” Shortly afterward, Maureen bought her daughters’ favorite store.
Maureen Palacios has a unique background. She was a corporate human resources consultant whose specialty was firing people! She moved from a grinding high-pressure environment of meetings and reports (and fat paychecks), to a world of fantasy and imagination, where her best payoff now is the sound of a child’s laughter.
Now situated at 2207 Honolulu, Once Upon A Time is, as it was in Jane Humphrey’s time, a cultural center for literature. It hosts a constant stream of events that promote literacy and education. Crammed into tiny nooks of the bookstore, one finds circles of children enjoying a “pajama storytime,” circles of adults in book clubs discussing their favorite novels, famous authors doing book signings or conducting workshops on creative writing. Outside the store, Once Upon A Time conducts book fairs and community events such as Laughing Out Loud for Literacy. Maureen Palacios constantly counsels and cajoles local authors and community members to create and support literature.
But just like Jane before her who had to battle the Super Crown mega-bookstores, Maureen finds herself in a lopsided contest with price cutting Amazon.com. Maureen told me: “Sure you can buy it cheaper at Amazon, but what is the cost to the community? Amazon doesn’t hire your teenagers, donate to your local schools, and worse, they don’t pay sales tax that supports local government. I can order you any book, get it faster and without shipping costs, and when you pick it up, I’ll greet you with a smile.” Let’s see Amazon match that!
Once Upon A Time is one of those treasures that make Montrose the jewel it is, and it’s a draw from outside CV as well. It was recently named the oldest children’s bookstore in the U.S., and customers drive in from all over California. But you and I can just walk down the friendly streets of Montrose to get there. Stop in and browse the shelves of books for kids and adults. And, say hi to Maureen for me.
Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.