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Covered Bridge Country Store owner Diane Cronin in her “old fashioned gift shop” in Pepperell, where an array of new and vintage items are sold.
Covered Bridge Country Store owner Diane Cronin in her “old fashioned gift shop” in Pepperell, where an array of new and vintage items are sold.
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PEPPERELL – The Covered Bridge Country Store is open again, after two pandemic-related shut-downs, and owner Diane Cronin is glad to be back.

But reopening hasn’t been as simple as it sounds. It’s her second restart after the state shutdown ended.

The first was last summer, under new regulations. Her customer limit, based on the store’s square footage, was two at a time, Cronin said — not a good fit. She closed again after Christmas.

This nifty country store, with its enticing inventory displayed on two levels, is all about browsing at leisure, and Cronin said she’s often had groups stop by. “Some people stay for hours,” she said.

On a recent warm, sunny spring day, Cronin greeted a Nashoba Valley Voice reporter at the open door of her shop. All was quiet behind her. Pre-pandemic, this might have been a busy day, but she’d been open for over an hour with no customers yet. Returning to business as usual may take some time, she said.

“Coming back is hard,” she said. “People are strolling, happy to be out and about… .” But they’re not stopping in here like they used to, and “regulars” have been slow to return.

Tourists and seasonal shoppers add to her customer base, said Cronin, who launched the business in 2003. Ironically, a “Chronicle” feature last year spotlighting the store in a segment on covered bridges could have drawn new visitors. But soon after the show aired, the state shut down.

It’s always been about awareness, Cronin said. People need to know this little country gem is here. Located at 34 Tucker St., the store is tucked away on a hillside site at the corner of Groton Street, near the historic landmark it’s named for.

The Trip Advisor website lists the iconic covered bridge as one of five “things to do in Pepperell,” noting the well-documented story of a local Revolutionary War hero, Prudence Cummings Wright, who, in April 1775, headed a women’s militia that intercepted incoming British soldiers at Jewett’s Bridge on the Nashua River. There’s a plaque at the site.

With a historic site nearby, plus restaurants and other area attractions such as the Nashua River Rail Trail, it’s likely that trade will pick up as rural road trips resume over the summer. And Cronin can look forward to busier days ahead. But for this visitor, it was great to have the store all to herself. Having first visited during the holiday season, it was even better the second time around.

Housed in an old Victorian (circa 1890s) that is also Cronin’s home, the shop has an eclectic inventory, from antique dolls displayed behind glass to just about anything that might catch your fancy. But this is no fusty olde curiosity shoppe. The store is bright, roomy and except for vintage jewelry and the dolls, almost everything here is new, including a few retro pieces “made to look old,” Cronin said.

She does sell some things on consignment, she said, but not “used” items, unless it’s something special, like an antique.

One unique item is a brand-new puzzle in a metal box with a picture of Pepperell’s own Colonel Prescott, a Revolutionary War hero who fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill. It’s custom made, she said. She sent a picture and the outfit that made the puzzle reproduced it on the box. The price: $25.

There are candles, too, and an array of items from Brick Pond Handworks and Dedham Pottery. Both are big sellers throughout the region, Cronin said, including at L.L. Bean and the Nantucket Whaling Museum. Here, though, you can get them at a “special price,” she said.

Everything here seems priced right. Reluctant to leave empty-handed, this visitor eyed a couple of charming vintage necklaces – $13 and $14 – before settling on a pair of pretty gold earrings for $2. Quite a bargain! A return trip is planned.

Cronin once worked in the corporate world, a high-pressure job that involved travel, she said. Mostly city stops: Manhattan, Boston. At some point, she opted out to go into business for herself. She’d first envisioned opening a gift shop as a “retirement business,” she said. But it evolved into her new normal.

She already had the house, and a lifelong penchant for antiques, she said, especially dolls, which she collected as a hobby. Growing up, her family was into collectibles. For her brothers it was radios and nautical items. For her, antique dolls. “I had beautiful dolls, one spoke French,” she said. She had hundreds, she said, and started selling them online. Still does.

But the gift shop was a different kind of venture. It seemed like the right place, time and fit, she said, even the zoning worked. So she decided to go for it. A local contractor did the work.

“I loved antiques and crafts so I combined the two,” Cronin said, in part aiming to support local artists and artisans by selling their work in the store. She tried gourmet foods, too, but it turned out to be a holiday specialty. “It’s seasonal now,” she said – except for maple syrup and honey, which are sold year-round. The honey is especially popular, she said. It comes from a local farm, Nissitissit Apiary.

Local is a watch word for this business. Local craftspeople, potters, farmers, artists. And the store stocks a lot of covered bridge pictures and other bridge-related items. Cronin also sells items to help nonprofit organizations, and the Pepperell Historical Society, on which she serves. She’s also on the Historic Commission, which she has chaired for 12 years.

“I love people,” Cronin said, and she enjoys sharing local lore with customers who like to chat as they browse. “This doesn’t feel like work. I love what I do,” she said.

The Covered Bridge Country Store is open four days a week. Hours are Wed. – Sat., 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. No customer limit now, but please call ahead at 978-433-3232.