For sellers of school supplies, it's Christmas in July.
It's the high season for sales of books and games, borders and stickers and - increasingly, local mom-and-pop retailers say - construction paper.
Colored craft paper is rarely within a school's budget anymore. The Tucson Unified School District is considering how to close a $17 million gap in next year's school budget.
It's mulling the possibility of teacher layoffs and multiple school closures, so shrinking already meager school-supply budgets seems a foregone conclusion.
But that doesn't mean teachers are willing to go without. Instead, they often make classroom purchases using their personal income.
Teachers are spending, on average, $500 on basic supplies each year, Tucson Values Teachers executive director Jacquelyn Jackson estimates.
And in mid-July, Tucson's supply stores began seeing a steady stream of shoppers.
One of Tucson teachers' destinations is Jonathan's Educational Resources Inc., 3100 N. Stone Ave.
Its inventory of brightly colored teaching tools nearly overwhelms the small space. Customers are greeted on entry, often by name.
The store has helped to deck out area classrooms for 25 years, and its owner, Jonathan Katz, takes pride in creating an intimate environment and strong relationships with teachers, principals and parents.
"It's tough to be a teacher in Arizona right now," said Katz's wife, Marcia Katz, who helps run the store and arranges continuing-education workshops there for teachers. "We try to make this a really supportive place."
That's what customers say keeps them coming back.
Dan Weisz, principal at TUSD's Johnson Primary School, has been an educator for three decades, and he's shopped at Jonathan's almost all of that time.
"It's a store run by teachers. They know what's important and what's current," he said. "They're almost like personal shoppers. That personalized service you don't get on the Internet."
Erica Quintana, a teacher for 26 years, left the store earlier this week having spent $65 on supplies, including whiteboards for students' individual responses during group activities.
She said she goes back regularly for things like pencils to reward students for being the "star of the week" and other items to give them on their birthdays.
"I probably have thousands of dollars in books" for students, Quintana said. "I like the fact that there's a family doing it (at Jona-than's), and that's how I like to spend my money."
The store will celebrate its 25th anniversary Saturday with a sale, balloons and cake, Katz said.
He and his wife were both teachers in Amphitheater School District.
Tucson recently lost one teaching supply store, Teaching Tools, 450 E. Wetmore Road, but it has another on the east side, Teacher Parent Connection, 7641 E. Speedway, which also has a long Tucson history.
Teacher Parent Connection was founded in 1989, owner Debbie Masquelier said.
"You have to figure out what works and adjust the product line, adjust the hours," Masquelier said, referring to the challenge of smaller school budgets and a generally down economy. "There's a lot of great parents who help out teachers and their classrooms."
Kid's Center, a toy store at 1725 N. Swan Road, is also seeing the downturn in educational funding.
"The school districts are definitely shopping with us less than 10 years ago," said Jim Davis, who owns the store with his wife, Retha Davis.
The store stocks games and educational toys for all ages and levels of development, Davis said.
Teaching-supply stores are competing not only with one another during strained economic times, but also with the convenience and easy price comparisons of the Internet, as well as educational publishers and supply manufacturers setting up displays within other major retailers.
It's now easier to find school supplies for teachers in Walmart and Office Max, which are also offering teacher discounts.
Similar trends can be found among parents, who are buying supplies not only for their children, but sometimes also for the classroom.
A monthly survey of consumer trends by the National Retail Federation shows that parents are spending slightly more on school supplies this year compared to last year, but still about 2.6 percent less than they were in 2008.
The report showed parents are spending almost 40 percent of the $99.84 they budgeted this year online. That's up from about 25 percent four years ago.
Back to school isn't all about commerce, though. Altruism is helping fill gaps.
Tucson Values Teachers runs one of the largest local supply drives, dubbed Tucson Supplies Teachers, now in its fourth year. It's a joint effort with Walgreens.
The goal for this year's drive is to collect $125,000 in supplies, the executive director said. The group gave teachers $104,000 in supplies last year.
Another teacher-focused nonprofit also recently came on the scene.
Treasures 4 Teachers was started in the Phoenix area in 2004, and the Tucson operation opened in February, local director of admini-stration Deborah Curto said.
The group receives donations of office supplies from companies including IBM, Raytheon and Office Depot and sells those goods to teachers at a deep discount.
Teachers buy $30 memberships, which come with two cloth bags. They can fill those bags from the nonprofit's inventory and check out for $5 a bag, Curto said.
The group has about 200 members so far, with 15 new members added last weekend, she said. Curto expects another 30 members to sign up this weekend.
When classes begin for local school districts:
Tucson Aug. 2
Marana Aug. 6
Sahuarita Aug. 6
Sunnyside Aug. 6
Tanque Verde Aug. 8
Catalina Foothills Aug. 9
Flowing Wells Aug. 9
Amphitheater Aug. 9
Ajo Aug. 13
Vail In session
Source: District websites
How to help
The Tucson Association of Realtors is collecting school supplies to give to eight area school districts.
It has arranged pickups at a variety of local business through Aug. 3 and is planning another weekend fill-up-the-bus event.
From noon to 3 p.m. July 28, it will be collecting at the Walgreens stores at 3800 W. Ina Road and at 4685 E. Grant Road.
Among the school supplies in demand are tissues, spiral notebooks, pencils and easel pads.
For a complete list of supplies and pickup spots, go to www.tucsonrealtors.org/supplies.html
Contact reporter Carli Brosseau at email@example.com or 573-4197.