Once Upon a Time
… there was a mighty little children’s bookstore and a passionate Whitman College alum
By Jodi Nicotra
It may not read exactly like a fairy tale, but the story of Once Upon a Time, an independent children’s bookstore owned by the family of Jessica Palacios ’16, is filled with some peril and a lot of heart.
And like all good tales, it offers a pithy lesson or two: First, that reading can take different forms—and second, that each of us plays a direct role in helping our community businesses thrive.
Now back to the story … In 2008, Publisher’s Weekly named Once Upon a Time, in Montrose, California, as the nation’s oldest children’s bookstore. It was founded in 1966 by a local mom and artist named Jane Humphrey and for decades has been a jewel of this Los Angeles County community.
But in 2003, the story almost came to an abrupt and sad ending.
Humphrey had decided it was time to sell the business—but had no takers and toyed with shutting the doors for good. So, Palacios, then only 9 years old and a voracious reader, wrote an impassioned letter to the editor of the local paper pleading for someone to buy her favorite store.
“I am sad because no one wants to buy the nice bookstore,” she wrote. “Where am I going to get my fifth Harry Potter book if there is no Once Upon a Time bookstore?”
Palacios’s mom Maureen found out about her daughter’s letter and strong feelings when the newspaper called to verify the age of the young writer. Shortly after, the Palacios family, despite their lack of experience with retail, decided to take a major leap and buy the store.
From early on, Palacios played an important role at Once Upon a Time as a critic and reviewer of the latest books. Customers came to depend on the Excel spreadsheet where Jessica kept ratings for everything she’d read.
“The great thing about bookselling is that once you read a book and love it, you can share that love with someone else,” Palacios says.
With its story hours, book clubs, author visits and focus on customer service, Once Upon a Time remains a literary hub for area families. And just like Palacios and her sister did when they were little, many local children consider it their favorite store.
The Little Shop That Could
The Palacios family’s work at Once Upon a Time hasn’t gone unnoticed. In 2015, the store won the prestigious Pannell Award from the Women’s National Book Association, given annually to a bookstore whose community contributions encourage reading among children and young people. The next year, California State Senator Carol Liu named Once Upon a Time the California Small Business of the Year in her district. The store has also won a slew of local favorite business awards.
Yet, like many local retailers and restaurants in communities across the country, Once Upon a Time was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Palacios were able to work together as a coordinated family unit to keep the business afloat. Fortunately, the store already had a website that was occasionally used by customers to purchase books, and it also had a delivery service for the local neighborhood. Both proved invaluable for the new circumstances of shuttered doors and shutdowns.
Still, the family struggled. Especially for the first few months, the Palacios shouldered the burden of shifting their operation into online mode.
“We’d be at the store sometimes 18 hours a day, wrapping, packing boxes, doing everything we could do,” Palacios says.
My biggest goal is to see that every family is represented in our store, no matter what they look like. And if you don’t have a family, you can find one here, whether in the pages or the peopleJessica Palacios ’16
Again, a newspaper stepped back into the story. The Los Angeles Times ran a charming business profile—in the form of a children’s story—on Once Upon a Time and its struggles. It was a wake-up call for the community that local businesses were struggling and needed help. And because the L.A. Times is syndicated, the story ran all over the country. Palacios and her family were fielding calls from places as far as Philadelphia and Florida asking, “What can we do to help?”
The media attention also led to a spot on “The Kelly Clarkson Show” in December 2020 that proved to be a turning point for the store.
“It was just an explosion that really helped get us through that holiday season and the new year,” Palacios says.
Now, though it prides itself on being local, Once Upon a Time has extended its reach. While the store still thrives through Montrose foot traffic and in-store events, the online business has boomed. In addition to a brisk in-person business, the store now has regular customers in states as farflung as Hawaii and Tennessee.
A Bookstore Away From Home
Palacios spent plenty of her four years at Whitman hitting the books as a double major in biology and English—and selling books to her classmates. In fact, her passion for books came up in her first interview with an admission officer, who encouraged her to apply at the campus bookstore once when she arrived in Walla Walla. She worked at the Whitman Bookstore throughout college and considered it her home away from home.
After graduation in 2016, Palacios tested the waters as an intern at a Minneapolis nonprofit house that focused on environmental writing, and then moved back to California to work at The Huntington—which includes a library, art museum and botanical gardens. While each was meaningful work, she kept coming back to her family’s bookstore as the place for her.
It’s her degree in biology that Palacios says she uses the most for her work in the store.
“I’m a numbers person,” she says. “I love throwing the numbers into a graph: book sales, the working margins of the store, the jump of sales in the online store.” She believes her data, analytical and organizational skills help contribute to the success of the store.
That’s not to say Palacios finds the less quantitative aspects of running a bookstore less important. When the family took over the store, they added the tagline “Your Family Bookstore,” and Palacios takes that to heart.
“My biggest goal is to see that every family is represented in our store, no matter what they look like,” she says. “And if you don’t have a family, you can find one here, whether in the pages or the people.”
Palacios also finds it important to help customers embrace reading in all its forms. For instance, if a parent laments that their child is too wiggly to sit for story time, Palacio tells them that stories can also be absorbed while running around. And she believes that when it comes to defining reading, digital audio books and graphic novels count just as much as traditional books.
“People will say, ‘But that’s not reading,’” she says. “But it is! Reading comes in so many different forms. Take graphic novels or picture books, for instance. It takes a lot of skill and effort to read because so much happens from panel to panel or between pictures.”
Happily Ever After?
The Palacios are coming up on the 20-year anniversary of owning the store. Maureen is planning to retire at some point, so Palacios is thinking about how to combine her number-crunching role with being the face of the store.
Meanwhile, the neighborhood where the store is located has changed significantly since the pandemic shuttered a lot of local businesses. Palacios hopes to remind people that they play a role in what their community looks like. Where and how people spend their money has direct effects on the look and feel of an area.
“If you want Montrose or downtown Walla Walla to be a place where you can walk your dog, take your kids, have a good evening out with your family, you need to put that as a priority,” Palacios says. “You need to take the time and invest in where you are, in your community.”