Edwardsville launches 'Once Upon a Town' for charity

News-DemocratMay 14, 2013 

A fairytale ending for one Edwardsville store has turned into a continuing story of community service.

The city-wide movement to save struggling toy store Once Upon a Toy has now evolved into Once Upon a Town. Organized by Katie Elrod, owner of To-Do's, it is a group effort in Edwardsville and Glen Carbon for businesses to contribute to local charities.

On the 14th of each month, participating businesses donate 10 percent of their sales to the chosen charity of the month. Elrod said she chose the 14th because that is the day the town raised enough money to save Once Upon a Toy in March.

Last month was the first round for Once Upon a Town, and with less than a week's notice, participating businesses raised $1,000 for the Junior Service Club's "boundless playground" project in Township Park. The playground will open this weekend, offering ramps and equipment accessible to children with disabilities or who use wheelchairs.

The charity for the May 14 Once Upon a Town is Girl Scouts of Southern Illinois. Businesses that have signed on thus far include Unique Boutique & Gifts, Olive Oils & More, Studio Eleven Salon, Tot Spot Children's Resale, To-Do's, Edwardsville Flea Market, Wang Gang Asian Eats, Afterwords Bookstore and Once Upon a Toy, the little shop that started it all.

The bright-purple toy shop that has been an Edwardsville icon for 25 years nearly closed in March, when the bank threatened to call its loan. But when word leaked out, thousands of people donated on a website to raise enough money for the bank to back off.

Once Upon a Toy needed $75,000 to survive; it received more than $82,000, reaching its goal on owner Shawnta' Ray's 10th wedding anniversary.

"After we did the toy store effort, I thought if we could pull together for one of our local businesses, why can't we do it for our local charities?" Elrod said. "I'm enjoying it, because it makes me feel really good."

Elrod said for now, she wants to keep the focus on smaller local charities, rather than the national charities that have a much wider fundraising base. "We want to keep it all local in Edwardsville-Glen Carbon, where our customer base is," Elrod said. "For smaller groups, it's harder to get their attention."

When she got the effort going, primarily online, Elrod said there were only about six days until the first Once Upon a Town on April 14. But she got nine businesses signed right away, and those that were closed on that day donated a portion of the previous day instead.

"All of our individual businesses do charitable things all the time, give donations to this or that event," Elrod said. "But when you come together for a bigger project, it feels really good... it's the right thing to do."

Internet petitions often rise and fall, rarely making their goals. But this one turned into something new, which Ray said is "awesome."

"It's a way to keep the momentum and the effect of a group working together," Ray said. "Let's face it: 10 percent of your one-day sales isn't going to affect your bottom line, but together, it can make a difference."

Ray's store will be going through its own changes between now and next month's Once Upon a Town. When she received the community gift, Ray said there would be some revisioning of her company to be able to stay in business. Just this week, she signed a lease to move her store out of its iconic purple building and move into the Edwardsville Crossing shopping center, for a large reduction in rent and upkeep costs.

Ray said it "pains" her to move out of the purple store, and worse to walk away from her quirky marquee sign, which has been part of the Edwardsville landscape for many years. "But I'm not so unhappy to be walking away from the giant pothole in the parking lot," she said. "We're tagging our move, 'Goodbye pothole!'"

Ray also will re-brand her stores. The Edwardsville location was named Once Upon a Toy, which she said was often confused with thrift-store chain Once Upon a Child. "That may have been hurting us more than we thought," she said.

Her Clayton location was LagoonaMagoo, which she said was often misspelled and confused people.

Now both stores will be consolidated under her corporate name, Happy Up Inc.

And they will be open Tuesday to donate back to the Once Upon a Town effort, as will nearly all the businesses on the list, save one: Afterwords Books has relocated and will open next weekend at its new space. So owner LuAnn Locke will donate 10 percent of her grand-reopening day's take to Once Upon a Town.

If anyone wants to suggest a charity or has a business that wants to join, Elrod hopes they will contact her or post on the Facebook page. For now, Elrod said she wants to keep the focus on nonprofit organizations, rather than rescuing other businesses. "I suppose anything's possible," she said. "But right now, I think we ought to focus on the charities."

Contact reporter Elizabeth Donald at edonald@bnd.com or 239-2507.

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