AYER – Independent bookstores are few in number these days, those catering specifically to children even fewer, making the Little Bee Bookshop on Main Street a rare find. But this delightful little gem has more than novelty and kid-friendly vibe to recommend it.
For starters, an attractively sorted stock of 4,000 volumes, mainly for the younger group – toddlers to teenagers – used sparingly and priced accordingly.
“I think having a children’s bookstore is important,” said Little Bee owner, founder and bookseller Debra Rivera, for whom opening a bookstore was a lifelong dream. And the used versus new aspect of the business is an eco-friendly benefit that aligns with her values, she said.
But she will not trade quality for quantity in her wares. “I’m very picky,” Rivera said.
The sunny, immaculately clean shop with two large shop windows invites you to browse. Small but spacious, the one-room layout offers plenty of room to move. It doesn’t feel or look like an antique shop.
Many of the books that a visitor discovered on the shelves appeared to be as good as new, or as near as possible.
Several books in the Lemony Snicket series, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Harry Potter to name a few. Other titles were older favorites like “Madeline” and “The Secret Garden”.
Rivera also sells books by local writers, she said. The best-selling author Jennifer Morris, for example, known for her popular series “Flubby”, comes from Lunenburg. Carlene Phillips lives at Harvard.
A visitor spotted a well-known title by another local author. The Chocolate War, a young adult novel by the late Robert Cormier, a longtime former editor of Sentinel & Enterprise who lived in Leominster.
Rivera’s book purchase sources are varied. Sale by Friends of the Library, private sale, move sale for homeschoolers. She takes some on commission, others are donated, she said. With few exceptions, she selects only the best used books, chosen for both content and condition.
A few hardcover volumes on a shelf were old-fashioned. Classics she couldn’t do without, Rivera said. She pulled a paperback from another shelf and pointed to a tiny folded corner on the front page, a mistake she doesn’t normally accept. She explained why she chose it anyway, saying it’s a popular title, hard to find.
There are also books for adults, some new. In the center of the store, for example, an eye-catching Black History Month (February) exhibit featured well-known authors such as Langston Hughes.
Little Bee, which opened in August at 40 Main Street, occupies a prime location on the pedestrian-friendly sidewalk, near the commuter train station, the Nashua River Rail Trail and trendy restaurants.
Rivera followed the birth of her solo venture and said she made the decision to do so in July 2020 during the pandemic shutdown. “It hit me” that the time was right, though it might have seemed “crazy,” Rivera said. She was working in marketing at the time and was ready to take the plunge. She discussed it with her husband, who supported the idea.
By then she had done her homework, from courses geared towards small businesses and women’s businesses to a mentoring program. Prospects of a “new” bookstore to rival giants like Barnes and Noble have not been encouraged, Rivera said. But the book market for the second time was a different story.
Rivera had her eye on Ayer’s up-and-coming Main Street for her new store. As for the name, “Debra means bee in Hebrew,” she said. And “little” underscores its mission with children’s literature.
It all came together in one morning last year. From the window of the Union Coffee Roaster, a popular coffee shop on Main Street, she glimpsed an empty storefront across the street, the perfect spot for her bookstore.
She contacted the agent and owner who agreed to rent and renovate the space for her. “After that, things went fast,” she says. While the renovations were underway, Rivera began building the inventory and, with the help of her three adult daughters, designed the layout and sourced furniture from antique and consignment stores in the area. “We even found a few freebies,” she said.
One set of shelves came from a school that was closing in North Attleboro. What is new, however, is a pretty, patterned carpet in the reading corner.
An eclectic element is added as a display of handmade jewelry occupies a corner next to a window. She reached out to local artists and craftspeople early on, Rivera said, and now takes her work — the jewelry and some watercolors — on commission, with a percentage split that works well on both sides. She also has a few tote bags and t-shirts for sale. But she primarily sells books, Rivera said.
Store decor benefits from these colorful flourishes and other quirky touches, like baskets full of cardboard books and Scrabble tiles that one of her daughters used as category labels on some shelves.
A resident of nearby Devens, where she moved with her husband 20 years ago, Rivera said her first foray into the bookshop was setting up a “free library” in her adopted hometown: roadside boxes for residents to pick up books or could deliver, or both.
Her husband is also a book lover. “Our first date was at a bookstore in Washington state,” she said.
After six months, Rivera has high hopes for her new company, which is self-financing and debt-free with no employees. But she has realistic expectations and she’s cautious about spending. “I was a military wife … I can stretch a dollar,” she said. She is also grateful for the opportunity to do the work she loves. “It’s out of pure love,” she said.
Little Bee hosted a launch event and later Chamber of Commerce Open House last summer. Future plans include an open house during the Christmas period and other events such as book signings. One is coming in March, she said.
A book club group meets here and there are also weekly storytelling sessions. Before the store opens—or after, if it’s a slumber event—the focus is on “cute children’s stories with pictures,” Rivera said. The next one is already sold out, she added.
The opening hours of the shop are Tuesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The website is littlebeebookshop.com