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How Little Bee Bookshop came to be

December 17, 2021: The Harvard Press, by Carlene Phillips

“I’m going to own a children’s bookstore in downtown Ayer,” declared Devens resident Debra Rivera one day in the summer of 2020 while sitting on the back porch with her husband. “Imagine children coming into the Little Bee Bookshop,” he responded immediately.

“And it was that simple—I knew it couldn’t be called anything else,” said Rivera. She explained that the name Debra means “bee” in Hebrew, and her husband and his family had often given her bee-themed gifts.

This past August she made good on that vow, opening Little Bee Bookshop at 40 Main Street. What she didn’t include in her initial pronouncement was that the store would sell almost entirely used and remaindered books, be furnished with comfy, recycled furniture, and carry small gift items made by local artisans.

Owning a bookstore was a longtime dream for Rivera. She read voraciously as a child, and she and her husband read to their three daughters throughout their childhoods. Her husband supported the dream, and wherever the two traveled together, they sought out bookstores. Rivera stored up ideas from every store she visited to use one day in her own shop. At first that store was going to be a combination bookstore and cafe, but having a friend who had such a place, Rivera learned how challenging it is to do books and food together.

Working as a kindergarten assistant at Hildreth Elementary School for nine years, she reaffirmed how much she loves the wonder and enthusiasm of young children. Her memories and experiences led her to decide on a children’s bookstore. She does have a few shelves with books of interest to adults, “for those children who bring a grown-up with them,” she joked.

“I had to be in a community of other merchants, where people could walk to my store,” said Rivera. When she learned Pampered Pets was moving out of its space, she seized the opportunity to set up her bookstore there. She loved the building, especially the two large windows across the front. She said in the past months she has seen an influx of young families close to the downtown area, and she is getting the foot traffic she hoped for.

To her delight, local artisans have sought her out. Small framed watercolors hang on the walls, one a series of amphibians superimposed on a map of their local habitat. A small tree is decorated with crocheted bee ornaments, one in a tall, red-striped hat, another clearly a queen. Rivera said her friends have been incredibly helpful, doing everything from setting up QuickBooks accounting software to cleaning to alphabetizing books and counting them—4,000 on the shelves.

Books that are affordable and accessible

The commitment to selling used books was shaped by a couple of different factors. Rivera said that when she was growing up, her family couldn’t afford to buy books, so instead of owning books, she got them from the library. Knowing that books have become more and more expensive, she wanted to have a store where books would be affordable and accessible to kids. Rivera also has a strong commitment to sustainability: “Selling used books saves a lot of trees.”

It’s not just books that are being reused, it’s almost all the furniture in the store. The rug and pillows are new, said Rivera, but everything else is having a second life here. “I love using things that have already been in the world,” said Rivera.

The shelves came out of a 1950s school in western Massachusetts that was due for demolition. Her husband spotted them, and after the town spent time figuring out the rules of selling unwanted items, someone emailed, “Bring a crowbar and they’re yours.” Rivera said, “I love that they lived there for 70 years and now they’re here holding more stories.”

A wingback chair is one she bought from a man who said it was his mother-in-law’s reading chair into her old age. A 1930s student desk and a round pedestal table display books in the front of the store. “All these things had a life before. It makes me happy to be here every day.”

The furniture, table lamps, and large pillows in the low window seat make the store cozy and inviting. Testament to this came this past Halloween when stores had their doors open for trick-or-treaters. When a child asked to go into Rivera’s store, her mother said, “Oh, we can’t go in there, that’s somebody’s living room.” Kids are encouraged to go anywhere in the store, to move cushions however they choose, and to visit the art table in a nook at the back. Often the voice of a child reading to a younger sibling is background for customers. Two 11-year-old girls who are homeschooled come to the bookshop every Tuesday afternoon to work on their novel.

Finding the right books

Rivera scours library sales for books in excellent condition. She said at first she looked for books she loved and had read so much to kids. On opening day in August she encouraged people’s suggestions. That was how she got introduced to the genre of graphic novels, popular with 8- to 10-year-olds, which she says are a great way to hook reluctant readers.

She loves to talk to kids and suggest books they might like. One of her favorite authors is Carl Hiaason, who writes books for both adults and kids (10 and up), all set in Florida. She described with delight the mainstays of his books: the crazy, over-the-top characters; the posing of some problem to be solved; someone doing something harmful, often to the environment; and the underlying moral message of doing good.

She said she’s always looking for the classics, like “Madeline,” “The Mitten,” and the Mo Willems books about an audacious pigeon. For middle school readers, Sharon Creech is popular, with “Bloomability” perfect for 12-year-old girls. She said she keeps an eye out for books in dual languages, on diversity, and topical subjects. An age-appropriate book is easy to find, as all the books are grouped by age range.

Just recently Rivera has entered a partnership with a former teacher who wants to encourage creativity in kids. She has taken several books and made a “kit” to go with each that is filled with recycled objects that complement the story. “Frida,” about the artist Frida Kahlo, is accompanied by a kit that includes a bright silk flower and paints for a self-portrait. Wooden track pieces, train cars, and more enhance the reading of “Tracks.”

Rivera loves talking about books with customers. It gives her great pleasure when she finds a specific book someone asks for, and she said she has had amazing success at it. I was happy to make her day when she found two of my favorite books for me—“Brave Irene” and “Miss Rumphius.”

Until Dec. 23, the Little Bee Bookshop, 40 Main St., Ayer, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday. After Christmas, regular hours resume, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday.

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