Maureen Palacios and her two daughters, Amelia and Jessica, had always been loyal customers at Once Upon a Time, a children’s bookstore in their town of Montrose, Calif. Every Saturday, Palacios and her husband took their two daughters to Once Upon a Time, where Amelia and Jessica would look through the shelves full of all types of children’s books.
In February of 2003, as Palacios and her daughters walked past the bookstore, they noticed there were hardly any books for sale and discovered that Once Upon a Time, which opened in 1966, would most likely be forced to close its doors. The news greatly affected the Palacios family.
Jessica, then-nine years old, wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times, pleading for someone to buy the bookstore. Palacios only found out about the letter when a reporter from the Los Angeles Times called asking for Jessica.
“A man is asking for Jessica,” Palacios said. “So I said ‘who are you?’ … He said, ‘I want to talk to Jessica about the letter.’ And I said, ‘What letter? What are you talking about?’”
When Palacios read the letter, she knew she had to save Once Upon a Time. Jane Humphrey, the founder of Once Upon a Time, asked Palacios if she was interested in buying the store, pushing Palacios to leave her decades-long career in human resources.
“‘Jane, I fire people. That’s my job,” Palacios remembered saying to Humphrey. “I don’t know anything about retail.’”
However, Humphrey offered to train her, so Palacios put in a bid and was soon informed that she was the store’s new owner.
“I couldn’t let [Once Upon a Time] go out of the community. I couldn’t just let it go. Reading and writing and imagination is just, it’s so important to all of us and to my family, to the community’s family,” Palacios said.
La Cañada Flintridge resident Alenoush Shaghzo, who often visits Once Upon a Time with her daughter, said the bookstore has a warm and welcoming atmosphere.
“It’s such a cozy environment, their employees are just lovely, and have the absolute best book recommendations,” Shaghzo said. “As a parent, if you’re trying to figure out what might get your kids interested in reading, you don’t quite know. It’s great to go in and speak to a member of staff who is so knowledgeable, and their recommendations have always, always been spot on.”
In 2008, Once Upon a Time was named the nation’s oldest children’s bookstore by Publisher’s Weekly. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many businesses, including many independent bookstores, permanently closed their doors during the COVID-19 pandemic. But Once Upon a Time changed its ways of operating, survived the pandemic, and is now thriving.
Initially, Maureen Palacios and her daughter Jessica, now the manager of Once Upon a Time, created a contact-free system, where customers would order books over the phone for curbside pickup. Their system eventually changed to shipping orders.
Maureen and Jessica then began redesigning the store’s website so customers could order and pay online. The process of redesigning the website, however, required a great deal of time and effort.
“[Jessica and I were] just constantly doing online work, website work, changing things. And then we would stay until 2 in the morning, working,” Palacios said.
During this time in 2020, George Floyd, a Black man, was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minn. The Black Lives Matter movement led protests across the United States and left a lasting impact on Once Upon a Time.
Palacios said their business changed “almost overnight” as more people sought books to learn about anti-racism and the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.
The bookstore also began selling bilingual books to expand its offerings. Palacios shared her personal connection with the topic.
“My husband is Hispanic and so my children are biracial … I think there’s a need for bilingual books and books that look like my daughters, who are a darker complexion than me,” she said. “So those were the things that I was looking for, to be able to represent people in the wonderful humanity that we are.”
The store’s diverse selection of books exploring different racial and cultural upbringings went hand-in-hand with their offering of books relating to the experiences of the LGBTQ+ community. Once Upon a Time sells books relating to the LGBTQ+ community in their Young Adult section in celebration of Pride month each June.
This summer, the bookstore hosts a weekly Teen LGBTQ+ Book Club, in efforts to provide representation and a safe place for young LGBTQ+ people
Maddie Flanagan, who has worked at Once Upon a Time for more than two years, said it’s important to carry diverse books and to tell stories that need to be told.
“We live in a predominantly white community and I think it’s vital that those kids who might not otherwise have exposure to other races and sexualities and cultures and worldviews … have a place where they can come and we will recommend books about all different types of people,” Flanagan said.
Author Patricia Tanumihardja, along with illustrator Shiho Pate, recently shared their book “Ramen for Everyone” with readers at Once Upon a Time. The storytime event allowed Tanumihardja and Pate to connect with the Montrose community by showcasing their book.
Tanumihardja described the unique atmosphere of Once Upon a Time that she said made the event a success.
“I could feel the warmth and the love that everybody had, not just from Palacios and Jessica, but also from all their other associates, all the people that worked there, you could tell that they love the bookstore and they love what they do,” Tanumihardja said.
Since its opening, Once Upon a Time has served the Montrose community across and continues to build community through various events and activities.
“There they are, inspiring students to read, to use their imagination, to say, ‘I can be an author too.’ Or ‘I can be an illustrator,’” Palacios said.”It gives us great satisfaction to be able to offer that to this community and continue to keep doing that for generations.”