Small but mighty: Tiny Acorn stands the tests of retail and time — Waterbury Roundabout – Waterbury Roundabout

Sally and Bob Dain pack The Tiny Acorn with fun treasures for all ages. Photo by Gordon Miller
Walk into the Tiny Acorn toy and gift shop in the Waterbury Square shopping center on South Main Street and you might feel like you’re entering your grandparents’ house during the holidays. 
Toys line shelves. Decorations abound. Used books, a new offering, sit ready for reading. At the center of it all you’ll find owners Bob and Sally Dain, chit-chatting away with customers like they were old pals.
That friendly, down-home atmosphere seems to be the secret behind the store’s success: The Dains are in their 19th year running the Waterbury shop, and the growth of online shopping and even a global pandemic haven’t stopped them. 
Married 48 years, the Dains enjoy working together running their toy and gift shop, greeting and helping customers. Photo by Gordon Miller
“In terms of a business, they have definitely had struggles with the pandemic, [but it is] a testament to their grit to keep the business going,” said Karen Nevin, executive director of Revitalizing Waterbury, an economic development nonprofit. “And I think this has a lot to do with Bob and Sally.” 
The couple opened the store in 2004. They had spent their careers serving people — first as educators at Brandon Training School, where they met in 1973. Later, Sally spent almost 20 years as a librarian, a job that let her find joy in hosting storytimes for children.
Sally found inspiration in the Shelburne Country Store, which she often went to as a kid. “It reminds me of my mom, who always picked out great gifts,” she said. After taking a small business course, and with some help from friends and family to set up the store, the “seed was born and grew into this acorn,” she said.
The pair ran their business doing what came naturally – making human connections. Therein lies a charm customers can’t get from clicking buttons on a computer.
“We want anyone who comes in here to leave happy,” Sally said, adding later, “Things online can’t touch your heart.” 

Sally said she selects items to sell in the store based on what her customers seem to like or request. If the store doesn’t have an item someone wants, she said they order it for them. The Dains also pay attention to feedback. Sally recalled how they once stocked drinking games until a customer pointed out that they didn’t seem to match the store’s identity. 
Used books for adults fill a bookcase in the front room. Photo by Lisa Scagliotti
A random suggestion from a customer led to the shop recently adding used books. A man came in one day with a box full of them and asked if the shop would take them. 
“We have the shelf area, and we started putting them there,” Sally said. Soon more customers started bringing books to trade in, and now folks regularly leave the store with a book in hand. The titles are priced at $1-$3 with some offered for free. 
Although the shop sells a small selection of children’s books, Sally said Tiny Acorn has otherwise steered away from books until recently. “When the bookstore opened, I said no, we’re not going to go there because I don’t think it’s fair,” she explained, referring to Bridgeside Books which opened in 2009. 
She said that was a lesson she picked up from former Stowe Street Emporium owner Jack Carter, whom she considered a mentor. “He would call and say, ‘Oh Sally, I just realized we’re selling the same card. I’m not going to buy it anymore.’ That’s how he was,” she recalled. Carter passed away last year. 
But the bookstore doesn’t sell used titles. “So I figured we’ll do Re-Reads,” she said. 
Sally isn’t exactly sure whether it’s been a boon to traffic, but the offering does seem to be catching on. Some customers find the collection and even stay for half an hour at a time in the corner set up for reading.
“I say take them, enjoy them, pass them on – they’re stories. Share the stories,” the former librarian said. 

A side room is filled with arts and crafts supplies. Photo by Lisa Scagliotti
Sally and Bob may say that they focus on building rapport with customers, but if one spends a little time in the store, it’s evident that their people skills come naturally. 
A Friday afternoon visit found an excited elementary school-aged girl gawking at all the toys and trinkets as Sally made a point to ask her about her day at school. At the cash register, Sally offered to round down the total for a woman buying gifts for friends if she didn’t have the exact change. 
“We didn’t get into this to be millionaires, but want to help people and add something to their life,” said Sally. “I want it to feel like home here.”
That personal touch also means that the Dains notice how their regular customers make sure to check out the store before shopping online. Bob says that means they try to stay in tune with pricing on Amazon and other retailers to make sure their store stays competitive.
Variety is also important. “We’re a store that’s for everyone,” Sally said. “We want to appeal to everyone. We want people even with little money to be able to buy something great. For $5 here you can still get a really nice gift.” 
In a half dozen little rooms, shoppers can pick out a gift for a new baby, a present for a schoolmate’s birthday party, greeting cards, jewelry and games for all ages. Arts and crafts supplies fill one room and ballet dancewear and shoes fill another nook. The front room where the reading corner can be found contains an assortment of eclectic gifts that usually reflect the season.
“They found their niche and do a wonderful job,” said Nevin, from Revitalizing Waterbury. “And their items are lovely.”
The store has recently resumed hosting monthly storytime events starring friend Elizabeth Danyew as a Fairy Godmother character. Her storytime in October that invited youngsters to come in costume was a hit. The next one is scheduled for the day after Thanksgiving. 
It wouldn’t be storytime without props. Photo by Gordon Miller
And surprises. Photo by Gordon Miller
Bob Dain unpacks a new stuffed giraffe. Photo by Lisa Scagliotti
Last week, Sally was sorting new items to put on the shelves as they get ready for the busy holiday season. Bob was unpacking a shipment from toymaker Melissa and Doug. He pulled a 5-foot-tall stuffed giraffe from a box and gave it a prime spot just inside the front door. 
“It brings us joy, and we’re happy to be here,” Sally said of her work, adding, “It’s just fun.”
Waterbury Roundabout is a volunteer collaboration between Waterbury residents and UVM student journalists from the Community News Service, part of UVM’s Reporting and Documentary Storytelling program in the Center for Research on Vermont. We provide local news coverage about and for Waterbury, VT.