The Penny Candy Store

City_Mercado_Dulces_2The pennycandystore beyond the El

is where I first

fell in love

with unreality . . .

–from “The pennycandystore beyond the El,” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

When I spend time around small children these days, as I just have, and I see them obsessed with sweets, I think, “Tsk. They shouldn’t be eating that stuff.”

And then I remember when I was that age, when the happiest occasion in my life was to go to the penny candy store and stock up on treats that were garishly colored, unremitting, unrepentant sugar. Pure crap.

Pure heaven.

Our penny candy store was not beyond the El. We grew up on that farm I am always talking about and the nearest store, about 8 miles away, was a small, old-fashioned corner store run by the Delormes.

This kind of store was the more honest, more interesting version of today’s convenience stores. It was small and carried everyday items. It had a wooden floor that buckled and heaved as the temperatures changed and it had twine, for wrapping your parcels, in a dispenser hanging from the ceiling.

But I’m surprised I even remember those details because when I went to Delormes’ store, I only had eyes for the candy.

The candy was behind the counter but kids were allowed to go back there to feast their eyes on an array of pure bliss, and to make their momentous choices.

The choices weren’t easy. Delormes had it all.

Those little dots of hard frosting on paper that you peeled off, sometimes getting a shred of paper on your tongue with the candy.

Those paper straws full of powdered candy that you poured into your mouth to mix with your saliva and create a sludge that was hard to swallow. I wonder how many kids got vestiges of that powder into their lungs.

Those candy necklaces, little disks of colored candy strung on an elastic cord, that you could wear around your neck or your wrist. I know from experience that, if you wore it around our neck, you could stretch it up to reach your mouth in order to munch away. The string got sticky and wet and then got tangled up in your hair and made it sticky and wet. Incredibly unhygienic.

Incredibly fun.

The store had red and black licorice sticks, of course, unwrapped so you could buy a few and not use all your pennies on a full packet. They had Bonomo taffy and red hot dollars and atomic fire balls and peppermint patties. And Mary Janes, although I would never choose those!

My sister and I loved the Mallo Cups, which cost 5 cents but were worth it.. A Mallo Cup, for the uninitiated, is a perfect cup of milk chocolate, studded with toasted coconut and filled inside with marshmallow crème. And, AND, in the Mallo Cup package, you always got a little cardboard coupon. When you collected enough cardboard coupons, you could send them in and redeem them for more Mallo Cups! Free! For two nerdy little farm girls, getting a package in the mail with free Mallo Cups was about as thrilling as life got.

A trip to Delormes meant you left with a small brown paper sack, stuffed with goodies. If you were really lucky, your grandmother or mother would buy you a Fudgsicle to eat right away so you could save your candy for later.

You would sit with your sister, just you two in the parlor on the blue Oriental rug, and review and your compare your purchases. You might trade or split some candy to share. You would always try to make your last longer than hers, so you could gloat.

Ferlinghetti says that the penny candy store is where he first fell in love with unreality.

The whole concept of penny candy certainly feels unreal now. It’s unreal to think of buying anything for a penny. It’s unreal to think that the candy would be there in bins, open to the air and dozens of grimy little hands.

It felt unreal to us then, too, but in wonderful, magical ways. Unreal that you could feel so rich, with just a quarter to your name. Unreal that the candy was colorful and whimsical and so varied that a person’s goal for their whole childhood could be to try every single one.

Unreal that such a simple thing could provide such silly, simple joy that the memory has lasted my entire life.

Did you have a penny candy store to go to when you were little? Do you even remember penny candy?

34 thoughts on “The Penny Candy Store

  1. I remember penny candy, and I would eat a piece if someone gave it to me. I did think the candy necklaces. I just wore them. I thought they were so pretty! Candy wasn’t my thing .. But Western Auto … They had the most wonderful case of Match box cars, trucks and tractors! If we children did our chores to Moms approval , at the end of the month , we got to visit ,and walk out of there with the Match Box of our choice. Pure delight! 🙂 we didn’t make every month though… Lol!

  2. I have fond memories of penny candy too at a neighborhood store in Ogdensburg, NY. I, too loved the candy necklaces and the ring around our necks! Also loved the root beer barrels,Mary Janes, Boston beans and dots on the paper.

    • Funny, isn’t it, how many different options there were for different tastes? The root beer barrels and Mary Janes would’ve been WAY down on my list but you and I still share the same fond memories of the overall experience. I think that’s neat.

  3. Ours were somewhat different, while the same…. At the corner dairy there was a whole glass counter with rows and rows of lollies [open to the air] for little eyes to sparkle and glisten over. There was a glass pane between us and them, so we could only point and say ‘that one’ to the kind and patient man who owned the store and who stood there, white paper bag opened in his hand, waiting for the final choices to be made. As it was such a rare treat, we took AGES to choose. Was it what tasted best or what each penny bought more of? I had threepence, my sister being older, had sixpence. The size of the white paper bag counted in the end. I loved it best when there was a licorice stick pointing out the top even though I didn’t like licorice, it looked so pretty!! Interestingly I don’t really recall tastes, just the thrill of being allowed to choose.

    • You’re so right–different but the same! Just the experience of such apparent opulence of choice must mean a lot to little kids. It seemed okay that we had to be limited in what we got, because what we ended up with was our choice and so special.

  4. The penny candy store is one of many delights that my own kids will never know the joy of…although we’ve tried to track down something similar to share, we’ve yet to find anything that ignites that true nostalgia for us. Oh, and now I’m craving a Mallo Cup 🙂

    • I’m always craving a Mallo cup! I’ve seen penny candy-type displays in contemporary stores but it isn’t the same. Everything is so expensive and hygienic and 21st century! Your kids probably think you’re hopelessly old-fashioned when you talk about the glories of youth! 😉

  5. I’m not sure there was a penny candy store in Los Angeles where I grew up. I spent a lot of time sailing with my family which placed us on Catalina Island at the Isthmus. There was a general store there that made the best slushies. I also liked tootsie pops – chocolate preferably. Now thinking back, I don’t think we had much access to candy.

    • It’s funny–I’m not sure we had all that much access to candy on a regular basis. I think this packet of memories just looms large for me and makes the candy seem bigger than life–that was part of the unreality of it all, maybe. But, yes to slushies and chocolate tootsie pops!

  6. My childhood row house neighborhood had at least 2 corner stores that stocked penny candy. Both were on the route I walked to elementary school, so I became familiar with their wares. I was especially taken with the candy dots and the day glo heavily sweetened syrup that came in little wax bottles you bit into. Oh, and the candy cigarettes!

  7. You captured the penny candy experience perfectly. Dietz’s was the store several doors down from the local movie theater ($1 tickets) in my hometown. We went to Dietz’s before the matinee to load up on candy. We’d point to what we wanted on the glass cover of the candy display and the store clerk would fill a small brown bag with our chosen goodies. Oh yes I ate those candy necklaces and also bypassed the Mary Janes. I loved the small squares of vanilla fudge. So much fun.

  8. Nope. No penny candy for us. Our shopping thrill was getting up early on a Saturday morning to go the market with our father; to buy the week’s supply of fruit and vegetables. Then we came home and attempted to devour the week’s supply of mandarins or watermelon in one go! Occasionally we were allowed to choose Indian sweets and savoury mixes from a mobile cart. We preferred the hot and spicy treats to the sweet treats. However if there had been penny candy easily available I am sure we would have loved the experience just as you did. How would you like to see this? A exhibition devoted to sugar and all things sweet. 🙂

    • Wow–and here I thought you and I were so simpatico! 😉 Maybe, because I lived on a farm, where fruit and vegetables were the order of the day and we had no knowledge of hot and spicy, the candy meant more to me. Or maybe I was just a pint-sized glutton!

      • Oh no, not a glutton at all. We just didn’t have the opportunity to indulge. I remember loving the jelly babies that my grandfather sent us from New Zealand. And every Christmas my mother would buy Callard and Bowser toffee as well as nougat which we thought were the ultimate sweet treats. My mother sometimes made a pink coconut confection and fudge. We enjoyed those. And at some time or other there were minties and lifesavers. ( Hey maybe there was a penny candy store somewhere but my Mum hid it from me. 😉 )

  9. OH YES, and one store had a massive boxer who looked over the counter at us…totally gentle.
    ugh, now i want SWEETS!! And have gone over to the ‘dark side’ and LOVE the salt licorice of The Nederlands 🙂 Thanks for the memories.

    • Salt licorice?! I never heard of that! But oh, I love boxers! We had them as pets when I was a kid and I’ve never met sweeter dogs. Not particularly smart but sweet!

  10. This kind of shop is enjoying a renaissance in the UK just now. But they’re not part of my childhood. I was one of those far-too-well brought up children who was barely allowed tooth-rotting sweets. Plus I was a post-war rationing baby. I think I missed out……

    • I bet your teeth are in better shape than mine! But I’m glad I have this particular set of memories–we didn’t get the candy all that often and it seemed so magical.

  11. What a lovely story! I love the image of you and your sister, excitedly waiting for the mail. I remember the first book I was allowed to order by mail. Mom and I put money in an envelope and…a few weeks later the magical parcel with that wondrous book arrived!
    We went to the market for candy but I never had a sweet tooth…I was more interested in the large Dutch fries, sold in a little paper bag with a huge dollop of mayonaise on top…heaven! ( we are talking The Netherlands here) My husband is the youngest of eleven (!) and his father was the best artisan baker and pastry chef you can imagine. Every Saturday night all kids were allowed in the store and select one delicious sweet pastry.

    • As an adult, I’d much rather have salty fries with mayo–that sounds so good. But I think the experience is similar, whether it was candy or fries or a pastry–something saved for special. Eleven kids–wow! It makes be feel a little cheated, with just one sibling (although she’s the greatest!)

  12. We had a store like yours at the end of my street. O’Hearn’s grocery store was on the end of Standish street in Plattsburgh. I can remember handing in my soda bottle for three cents. Then buying a soda, comic book, and a candy bar for only 27 cents. It was at best a once a week treat. I could make that soda and candy last a long time.

  13. Wow, you took me back to my childhood. We would ride out bikes to the dime store and buy penny candy. I remember lemon drops as well and those little spherical chocolates 5 or 6 to a plastic package. Our store also sold various things from china dogs to oil paints and canvases, scissors and pens. We were always excited to go there and spend our loose change for a treat. The people who ran ours were the Crumbaughs.

  14. Everything costs more than a penny and it’s a huge store, but I love this place:

    It’s in a town maybe 40 minutes from where I live, but I love to take the kids (because they’re my socially acceptable justification to visit). Am sure it won’t surprise you to learn that I love love love candy. I especially love the vintage stuff. Clark Bar (which I read was the first candy bar. ??) And your Mallo Cups. Also European bars like Wispa and Victoria Crumble. It’s not open in winter, but as soon as it opens again, I’ll be there. Been running low on my supplies 😉

    Fun post, Kerry! Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    • I’m so glad you (and your kids) have a place to still have this experience–lots of kids have no idea that variety exists! And, yes, one of my favorite things about going anywhere is to try the candy in another country. It’s even fun just to cross the border to Canada and see the differences!

  15. I don’t remember penny candy much, though there was a store that we were not allowed to go into alone that had it… What I remember is the jelly bean barrel! It would appear in one of the town’s drugstores sometime before Easter. As you said, it was open and inviting with millions of lovely colors and there was a scoop to scoop out the beans. But I am sure, when no one was looking, that my little grimy hands went in there to get just the colors I wanted to eat!!! As you say, imagine that today! Mothers would have apoplexy!!!!

  16. I loved those candy necklaces but I don’t think any of the candy was a penny in my town, maybe we paid a nickel for them.

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