EDWARDSVILLE — Its bright-purple building stands out on Troy Road, a sharp contrast from the big-box retailers and chain stores in Edwardsville's shopping plazas.
Once Upon a Toy has been an Edwardsville mainstay for 26 years, but this week it faced a crisis: the bank had called its loan after sales dropped in the lackluster economy. Like many small, independent retailers, the toy store faced closing if it could not come up with a lot of money very quickly.
That day the sign out front quoted Dr. Seuss: "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened."
But that's when the Edwardsville-Glen Carbon community stepped up. Faced with the prospect of losing its funky little toy store, thousands of people have amassed donations large and small via a crowdfunding website called CrowdTilt.
Launched Tuesday, the total reached more than $35,000 by Wednesday afternoon.
Posts popped up across social networking, with Twitter posts tagged #savethetoystore. At least a dozen other small businesses offered a percentage of their own sales this week.
By the end of the day on Tuesday, First Mid-Illinois Bank agreed that if the store can raise $75,000 by Friday, it will not call the loan after all.
That spurred owner Shawnta Ray to change her sign. Now it reads, "Bankers are people too!"
"We had some alternatives in mind if they didn't go along," Ray said, laughing.
The store was founded in the 1980s by Steve St. Pierre, who later opened branches called LagoonaMagoo in Fairview Heights and at the St. Louis Mills Mall. Ray started working at Once Upon a Toy 17 years ago, and in 2006 she bought the stores from St. Pierre, creating Happy Up Inc.
But the tanking economy hit the stores hard in 2008, Ray said. Once Upon a Toy specializes in higher-end toys, with more Playmobil than Barbie, and suddenly the higher-end items weren't selling. For example, Ray said, she would usually sell about six of the big $150 Playmobil castle sets a year. In 2008, no one bought even one.
Her store had been slow to get on the Internet, Ray said, and suddenly everyone was buying the big toys online. "We adjusted, but we didn't change quickly enough," she said. "The Internet isn't going to go away, and we don't blame consumers for trying to find the best prices."
Like many stores, she tried to lower her overhead. She moved LagoonaMagoo out of St. Louis Mills into a smaller Clayton, Mo., location, and she moved and eventually closed the Fairview Heights store.
"Whenever you try things with your business, it's not an immediate fix," Ray said.
But the bank lost confidence, she said, and called the $450,000 loan five years ahead of schedule to safeguard its investment.
That's when longtime customer Emily Gates kicked off a grassroots effort to save the store. Gates was 11 years old the first time she came to Once Upon a Toy.
"It was part of my childhood," she said. "Now I'm married with three kids of my own, and they love the store."
Gates started the CrowdTilt site and a Facebook page that quickly grew to more than 3,700 fans. The financial donations are only collected via CrowdTilt if they meet their goal, for everyone's protection, Gates said.
Ray said she is "shocked, floored, overwhelmed."
"I don't even know how to accept it. It's unbelievable," Ray said. "Children are donating their allowances on the website. It's crazy, this much generosity."
Why this particular store, when so many small businesses have vanished without a ripple in a tough economy? Gates thinks it is the unique nature of Once Upon a Toy that has spurred such a reaction.
"I am an avid supporter of this community, and I believe we can pull this off," Gates said. "A community of our size, coming together to save a local business ... it's just amazing."
Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2501.