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updated: 3/16/2013 1:44 PM

Illinois community rallies to save beloved toy store

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Associated Press

ST. LOUIS -- Set off by a purple exterior that would make Barney the Dinosaur beam, the Once Upon a Toy store in Edwardsville always took pride in a hands-on attitude that encouraged children to pluck items off the shelves and give them a whirl in the aisles -- all to their heart's content.

The toy store has been treasured by many of the 24,000 residents of this college town outside St. Louis. And now, when the shop needs the biggest lift of its life, the community has rallied to the rescue.

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As the store's owners struggled with the economy in recent years, its bank lender wasn't playing around. When it demanded this month that the business pay up $450,000 on its loan, owners Shawnta' Ray and Rick Harmon grimly warned their customers by email that they would have to close the store and another one they run called LagoonaMagoo in the Missouri town of Clayton.

"We started to grieve our business," Ray said Friday in detailing the financial troubles.

The Edwardsville store's fans would have none of it.

In what many patrons likened to the tear-jerking finale of the Frank Capra movie classic "It's a Wonderful Life," two Edwardsville mothers rallied the community in a plucky online fundraising campaign that within days blew past the goal of collecting $75,000. Much of that is bound for the bank as a show of good faith, in hopes of buying the owners more time.

To Ray, the surprise wasn't so much that the donations piled up, but how: Kids sent in their allowances. Area businesses pledged at times as much as 35 percent of their sales on a certain day. One contributor made good on a promise to pitch in $10,000 if the first $65,000 was in hand.

By Friday, the outpouring proved more than Ray could comprehend.

"I don't know why it gets me, but it does. It's hard to have words for something like this," Ray said, choking back tears. "We're overwhelmed, humbled. It's hard for us to feel worthy of all this attention."

A message left Friday with the president of First Mid-Illinois Bank & Trust, Mattoon -- identified by Ray as the lender -- was not returned. A fundraising website says that Ray and Harmon are working on a new business plan and considering other adjustments to their operation, while acknowledging that their ability to keep operating "for the remainder of this year, or forever, remains to be seen."

Townsfolk say the store has been a local fixture for a quarter century. The couple has owned it for the past seven years. Its most loyal customers say the campaign was something personal.

Heather Browning, the mother of a toddler, said she was saddened by the email warning of the store's closure and launched a Facebook page dedicated to saving it. The site drew more than 4,000 members and hundreds of supportive comments.

The store's fans took it a step further, setting up a fundraising effort on the crowdsourcing website CrowdTilt, where the quest to lure in $75,000 by the close of business Friday was completed a day ahead of time.

As of Saturday morning, the effort had raised more than $82,000, according to the website. The campaign will continue, even though it has reached its initial goal.

"It's truly amazing," said Sara Colvin, 37, who frequented the store as a child and is now the mother of a toddler. She thinks the rally is proof that the store really did make a difference in people's lives.

"I just think we have a sense of community here that not a lot of places have," Colvin said. "It was kinda like this was our moment, and we capitalized on it."

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