ITHACA, N.Y. — Katie Austin is a self-proclaimed stuffed animal aficionado, so when a little boy in North Carolina lost his beloved limited edition crocodile, the assistant manager of Ithaca’s Alphabet Soup was in a unique position to help.

The story begins more than 500 miles away, when a boy lost his croc near Durham. The 5-year-old was distraught but resilient. “That’s OK,” he said, according to his parents, “Santa will make me a new one.”

His parents were determined to uphold his confidence, and when the original croc’s trail went cold they took to the internet and found a replacement at a South Carolina shop — or so they thought. But their son’s Bashful Croc, a discontinued animal in the Jellycat Soft Toy menagerie, would prove to be elusive.

At Brice Elvington’s toy store in South Carolina, Toy Shop Florence, Jellycat stuffed animals are the top-selling line. The shop has shelves of cuddly bunnies and bears, dragons and dinos. But when Elvington got an online order for a croc, he couldn’t fill it. The Bashful Croc was out of stock.

Elvington offered the parents a discount on another critter, but another critter wouldn’t do. “It was like something out of a movie,” Elvington said. “You can imagine their stress! They need to get the croc to keep their kid’s Christmas spirit alive.”

Elvington posted to an online forum for specialty toy stores and asked if anyone else had the Bashful Croc. “I was actually overwhelmed by the response,” he said, as vendors from across the country reached out. As much as folks were eager to help, though, no crocs surfaced.

Until, that is, Elvington got a message from Ithaca. Greta Perl, owner of Alphabet Soup, sent word that a store employee, Austin, had a croc in her collection.

Austin has been a stuffed animal enthusiast from a young age, devouring a book on the history of the teddy bear at 10 years old and making her own plush toys by 13. When she heard the 5-year-old’s story she recognized a kindred spirit and saw an opportunity to brighten someone’s day.

Identifying herself as an “elf agent” working for Mr. Claus, she packaged her mint-condition croc and enclosed a note from Santa himself. The animal began its journey to North Carolina on Tuesday.

Elvington offered to pay Austin for the stuffed animal and the trouble but said she was willing to trade for a Jellycat chameleon. When the 5-year-old’s father offered extra money for the hassle, Elvington told him to just pay it forward.

“This is what gives our jobs meaning,” Elvington said, “keeping the magic of Christmas alive for a child.”

For Perl and Austin, chances to be fun and silly are part of the joy of operating a toy store. Austin memorably popped out of a cardboard box full of toys in one of Alphabet Soup’s recent posts on Instagram, and the two pulled a plethora of plushes from the shelves to pose with Tuesday, without prompting. They said they’re excited to hear how the croc settles into its new home; hopefully this time it won’t run off.

Featured image: Katie Austin and Greta Perl play with crocodiles at Alphabet Soup. (Devon Magliozzi/The Ithaca Voice)

Devon Magliozzi

Devon Magliozzi is a reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at dmagliozzi@ithacavoice.com or 607-391-0328.