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How Sweet it Was! The Corner Candy Store
“How sweet,” announces the sign that welcomes travelers to the current borough of Brooklyn. Any adult who spent their ’50s past recognizes these words bellowed by Ralph Kramden, the scheming Gotham bus driver who drove mid-decade in a popular TV sitcom known as The Honeymooners. Equally memorable to children of that bygone decade for its sweetness and popularity is the corner confectionery. Today, Sharon Johnson (retired teacher from Philadelphia) and self-described “child at heart” fondly recalls growing up in Muskegon, Michigan, and the role candy stores played in his childhood. Lee-lee as Alice, a Brinks candy store worker affectionately nicknamed Sharon, describes Muskegon as a small, blue-collar town with several candy stores that competed for schoolboy pennies and nickels. Brinks stood on the corner of Apple and Scott streets across from the public elementary school. Alice sold penny and nickel candy, and at Christmas she dressed like Santa Claus. Brinks also served food.
Children socialized in park or school yard. When asked to name her favorite sweets, Sharon paused for a moment and said: “I guess they are all. But sometimes I have a craving for wheels of licorice and kegs of root beer .” Psychologists suggest that frequent nostalgic trips to the past are not just an older person’s unnecessary indulgences, but contribute positively to mental health. Author Marina Krakovsky notes, “Such reminiscence may be healthier than you think. Despite the bittersweet rap of nostalgia and the often-heard advice to live in the moment, studies suggest that the occasional detour into the past can cheer you up.” (Psychology Today Magazine, May/June 2006) Loyola University researchers say that stints of just 20 minutes a day in the good old days can have the added benefit of giving you a joyful outlook. Growing up with a Kramden look-alike bus driver father, I became a candy store regular.
One store occupies a more important place in my memory than others. Nino’s was located on the corner of East 58th Street and N Avenue in a section of Brooklyn known as the Mill Basin. It was equidistant from my home and Mary Queen of Heaven, the parish primary school I attended. The store attracted local children from working-class families on their way to school. During the lunch break, Nino’s was crowded with the uniforms of Catholic school children eager to spend their Biggio, Candy Store2, allowances or income from cashing in returnable bottles to satisfy their cravings for sweets. It’s funny, I don’t remember seeing adults at the candy store. The adults spent their lunch time consuming serious adult food at Sam’s restaurant or John’s deli. Nino, the store’s owner and namesake, catered to his customers by selling a variety of items. There were school supplies such as marble notebooks, homework pads (Egad! in today’s school jargon diary notebooks), and loose-leaf.
There were favors for last-minute moms who forgot party supplies for Timmy or Sally. A bunch of cheap metal toys (now expensive collectibles) stamped made in Japan sat in the back of the store. A shelf in the center of the store was overflowing with comic books. Superman, Casper and Wendy, Archie, Jughead rotated as the kids searched for their favorites. Scholarly classmates ditched superheroes for a series known as Classics Illustrated. Illustrators have transformed classic works such as Ivanhoe, Three Musketeers and Robinson Caruso into comic book format. Most kids didn’t go to Nino’s for school supplies, toys, or comics. They went to satisfy their candy cravings and socialize with friends.
Eyes widened, little fingers pointed at penny and nickel candies locked away in a display case. Candies in the shape of buttons of all colors and all flavors dotted with strips of paper often the paper and the candies were inseparable. Jawbreakers and Bazooka bubble gum were to be tasted before returning to school. Any disbeliever caught chewing gum in class was looked at harshly or worse punished by the Dominican sisters. Candy could not only be sweet but funny. Remember the big red wax lips and cigar shaped gum even with an authentic looking ring. As children, we chewed candy or chocolate cigarettes in boxes or cases that looked like the ones our parents blew. “Meet me at Nino’s after school,” the teenagers called to each other as they left childhood behind to hang out at the fountain. The fountain was a magnificent work of art made of gleaming wood and marble that wrapped around its sides. At the fountain, Nino created sundaes, lunges and floats. All ice cream has been hand dipped.
There was no canned soda at the store. Nino mixed seltzer water with syrups. Children sipped their cherry cokes, lime rickies and egg custards over the years on these stools. Historically, the candy store was part of the urban landscape. The mom and pop candy store captured in a photo by Norman Rockwell exists in our memories. It’s a piece of Americana replaced by supermarkets and gourmet specialty stores. If you’re craving old-fashioned candy, try online candy stores or if you don’t mind retro, try the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain. Next time you’re feeling a little blue, grab a licorice wheel, turn on Nickelodeon, enjoy an episode of The Honeymooners, and ruminate with the Brooklyn bus driver about “How Sweet It Is.”
Krakovsky, Marina. “Nostalgia: Sweet Memory”. (Psychology Today, May/June 2006. Last revised October 11, 2007, Item ID 4077).
Old fashioned candy websites
How to Make Brooklyn Egg Custard
Ingredients: whole milk, chocolate syrup, seltzer water
Spoon in a glass of chocolate syrup
Fill the bottom of the glass with cold milk
Fill the rest of the glass with seltzer water
Move a spoon up and down, mixing the ingredients
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