The diminutive United Nations Association store -- a landmark in downtown Palo Alto for more than a third of a century -- is struggling for survival against changes in shopping habits and has already become an endangered species.
The situation is serious, potentially fatal for the little store, now approaching its 37th year.
Only a handful of such stores (perhaps four or five) exist around the nation, compared to up to 50 or so several decades back, according to William "Bill" Frye, a retired physicist and husband of the store's founder, the late Betty Frye, who died in 1990.
"Betty gets all the credit," he said, adding that United Nations Association in Palo Alto was formed in the 1950s but that Betty Frye felt that the association needed more visibility and decided the store would be the way to get that. It became a project of hers when their two children left for college, he recalled.
"It was really a non-political attempt to get exposure" for the work the United Nations was doing to benefit children and adults around the world, Frye recalled of the initial store, an even smaller shop on the second floor of a building on Ramona Street. After about a year, the store got its storefront location on Emerson Street, just north of Hamilton Avenue, a neighbor of Bell's Bookstore and Mac's Smoke Shop.
When it was created in 1974, the primary vehicle for aiding children worldwide was UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund -- originally the UN Children's Emergency Fund when it was created in 1946 to aid young victims of World War II.
In some quarters, everything about the United Nations is political. But helping children for many seems to override feelings about broader political or international issues.
For decades, people went to the Palo Alto store to buy their UNICEF Christmas and special-event cards, or imported woodcarvings, baskets, artwork and weavings from around the world. The shop also boasts a collection of tiny flags from countries around the world.
But over the years it became easier for people to buy UNICEF cards online, and the awareness of the store and its eclectic offerings -- many of them oriented toward children -- faded from community awareness as generations and the population changed.
Frye, who's career in science and physics is recognized nationally and beyond, said children in Palo Alto would trick or treat for UNICEF at Halloween.
Worldwide, UNICEF operates on a $2.781 billion budget. Its assistance to children and families includes basics such as clean water, nutrition, health care, emergency relief, education and general protection. Most funding is from governments and foundations, but a significant portion comes from an estimated 6 million individual donors, according to the UNICEF USA website.
Yet the organization tragically estimates that about 22,000 children worldwide die daily from preventable causes.
"We believe that number should be zero," it states boldly -- and perhaps unrealistically -- on its website, www.unicefusa.org.
But the Palo Alto store is still hanging on, run entirely by volunteers. Other surviving stores are in Tucson, Ariz., Lansing, Mich., and Berkeley.
Shelly Kosak, the store's volunteer coordinator for the past decade (one of six volunteers who manage the store), recalled the many hundreds of volunteers who have spent time in the store since 1974: "I personally trained hundreds" over the past decade, she said.
There is a "Betty Frye Award" to recognize those who make special contributions to improving the world.
Yet the Palo Alto store is facing such serious financial difficulties that its existence is threatened, she and others fear.
She invites folks to drop by and check the place out, share in its sense of goodwill and international touches and say hello before they might need to say goodbye.