Andrea Montepagano knew something was different about her daughter from a very young age.
At a time when most babies are able to start playing along with activities like patty-cake and peek-a-boo, Montepagano’s daughter responded with a vacant stare.
She began missing other milestones that prompted Montepagano’s grandmother to suggest getting her tested, which eventually led to her being diagnosed with autism at around 18 months old.
Since then, Montepagano has become completely immersed in the autism community. She started noticing that there seemed to be more autism-friendly options for her and her daughter, now 6 years old, when they traveled, but there was still much to be desired for the autism community in the Valley.
She eventually married that observation with her love of books in order to create Enchanted Chapters, a youth bookstore with an emphasis on accessibility for people on the autism spectrum or with other disabilities. The store celebrated its grand opening Saturday.
“We just never got out to do anything, so I kind of took all the memories and inspiration I’d found when we were traveling and put it into this place to create a space that was magical, where kids could come in and they’re excited and where there’s something more than just a sterile line of books,” she said.
That’s why her store, located near 32nd Street and Shea Boulevard in Phoenix, has plenty of color and nearly two dozen plants hung around its interior.
Two store pets, a bird named Potter and a Sphinx cat named Bellatrix after characters from Harry Potter, also roam freely around the store.
A community space focused on inclusion
Montepagano said she also wants Enchanted Chapters to serve as a meeting and hangout place for the community, which is why the store has planned events and biweekly meetups for parents of children on the autism spectrum.
Though more businesses around the Valley have started making their experiences inclusive for all, there is still much work to be done for the autism community, said Montepagano, who also has a 3-year-old son on the autism spectrum.
“There are more and more every year and I think a lot of places are becoming more adaptable to people with autism and other developmental disabilities, but I think there’s not really a ton of options for us as families — certainly not as many as a neurotypical child would have,” she said.
As part of that push toward inclusion, Montepagano ensured the store would have a separate room for sensory breaks or story time, the latter of which proved difficult for her daughter in other settings.
She recalled taking her daughter to story time at a Peoria library that was filled with people and included a tambourine and other music.
It proved too much for her daughter, whom Montepagano said went into “meltdown-mode”
That experience prompted Montepagano to arrange both traditional and sensory-friendly story times.
The latter will take place in the hour before the store opens to the general public so as to avoid distraction and stimulation from people walking in and out. The lights will also be dimmed and ambient music will be turned off to make the experience as comfortable as possible for guests sensitive to sensory input.
‘Beautiful inspiration’ turned magical vision
The focus on inclusion is part of what made Montepagano’s childhood friend, Jennifer Pettit, join the Enchanted Chapters team as a full-time general manager.
Pettit said one day she’d been jogging up a mountain when a text message from Montepagano interrupted her music.
It was a request to discuss a business idea Montepagano had.
When they met and Montepagano described her vision for an inclusive, youth-focused bookstore, Pettit was sold on what she described as Montepagano’s “really beautiful inspiration.”
The two planned together for months prior to the store’s opening Saturday.
“It’s been amazing to see it come together and to see her vision become 3D,” Pettit said. “It’s become even more magical than I think either of us could’ve imagined in the beginning when it was just an idea.”
Montepagano said she’s gotten some questions about how her brick-and-mortar business can succeed given the increasingly digitized book world, but said that she believes children’s stories will always be best experienced with a physical book.
“If I tried to read her (Montepagano’s daughter) something on the Kindle, she’d be like, ‘What are you doing? Get out of here,'” she said. “If it’s a book and something she can hold, I can ask her what color is this and who is that and what is that — it’s more engaging.”
Pettit said, though, that she and Montepagano won’t measure success of the store based purely on the number of books sold.
“It will be how much people in the community love it and feel included and if they get something out of it,” Pettit said. “It’s nice when it becomes more than a store and is more engaging and provides a solace for people, especially for children who have special needs.”
Enchanted Chapters is located at 10880 North 32nd St., Suite 11, in Phoenix and can be reached at 480-687-0582 or online at www.enchantedchapters.com.
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