Looks like ‘the end’ for Once Upon a Storybook in Tustin

TUSTIN – Unless an investor in shining armor intervenes, there’s no fairytale ending on the horizon for Once Upon a Storybook.

Finances will force the children’s bookstore in Tustin to shut its bright pink doors by the end of March – just a year and a half after they opened.

“We are very disappointed,” owner Susie Alexander, 52, said. “But it’s been the greatest experience of my life. I mean, how many people can say they’ve lived their dream?”

Customers know Alexander as Miss Susie The Story Lady.

She worked in educational publishing for years. First it was freelance, while she homeschooled her four children. Then it was full time, until the company she worked for eliminated her position a few years back.

As the Anaheim Hills resident debated what to do with the second half of her life, a friend threw out the idea of opening a children’s bookstore. That night, Alexander ordered books on the subject and started pitching the idea to her husband.

She took a job at Barnes & Noble in Orange, working there a year to learn the industry from supportive bosses.

In January 2013, Alexander dedicated herself fully to her new business, flying to Florida for an independent booksellers workshop and taking classes through the Small Business Administration.

Market research and her heart pointed her to Tustin, near where her husband had grown up and the family attended church. With a boost from an Indiegogo campaign, Alexander opened the store in October 2014 in the Enderle Center along 17th Street.


Customers enter past signs pointing to Hogwarts, Neverland and The Shire.

On a stair to the right, there’s a tiny pink door so fairies can stop by.

In the back, there’s a chalk wall signed by authors and illustrators who’ve made appearances at the store, with Salina Yoon – creator of the popular penguin pictures book series – one of their biggest supporters.

There are also reading nooks painted by Alexander’s artistic son, 24-year-old Carter Alexander, to look like a fire station, a cave and a castle.

For half his life, Erin Brankov’s son has frequented Once Upon a Storybook. The 2-year-old loves to walk with his mom from their Tustin home to the store, grab a book and climb inside the fire station nook until preschool storytime with Miss Susie starts.

“They are such an important part of our lives,” Brankov said.

The other part of that “they” is Tina Pomroy. The 67-year-old been with Alexander helping to run the store since day one, winning a bonus in December through author James Patterson’s program supporting independent booksellers.

Pomroy, who worked in special education for 35 years, called Once Upon a Bookstore “the best retirement job in the world.”

Together, Alexander and Pomroy have held red-carpet Caldecott Soirees, celebrating the winner of the year’s most prestigious award for picture books. They’ve hosted Girl Scout meetings, financial workshops and sign language classes. And they’ve thrown birthday parties and Polar Express Christmas parties in a room above the store.

The women have also kept a running book of quotes they hear from customers. One of their favorites came from a young shopper who said, “Mom, when I grow up I can bring my children here, right?”


Opening any business is risky. And while children’s bookstores haven’t taken as hard of a hit, Alexander knew the independent bookstore business posed unique challenges given the digital transformation of the past decade.

Alexander predicted it would take at least a year to make a profit. That anniversary came and went in October. The store had a strong December and its customer base continues to grow, but it hasn’t been enough to put the business in the black.

“Really, what I need is $50,000 to drop from the sky,” Alexander said.

Alexander’s husband, who oversees finances for a company that makes cell phone camera lenses, has been writing checks each month to keep the store afloat. When he handed her a check for January, Alexander decided she couldn’t do that to her family anymore.

As she started sharing news of the closing early this month, loyal customers started throwing out ideas and begging Alexander to start a crowdfunding campaign to keep the doors open.

“We’re just heartbroken,” said Brankov, an avid reader. “I don’t know what we’re going to do. We just don’t have other shops like that in the community.”


Alexander doesn’t know where she’ll land either.

“Once you’ve had the opportunity to live your dream, it’s very hard to say what’s next,” she said.

For now, she’s focusing on living that dream for at least a few more weeks.

There’s no set closing date yet, but Alexander plans to start a liquidation sale March 1. She also hopes to throw a final big event to mourn the loss while celebrating successes of the last 15 months.

Through the store, children have been introduced to new stories. They’ve met Pete the Cat and Curious George. They’ve absorbed wisdom from famous authors and crafted stories of their own.

Most importantly, Alexander hopes the store has inspired customers to live its motto: “Because stories inspire and books make memories.”

Contact the writer: 714-796-7963 or bstaggs@ocregister.com

Leave a Reply