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Blasts from the past. You know you’re old when…

by Margaret Haylock Capon

Recently, I received a “Remember When” e-mail from an old school friend, who was one of my classmates at Picton’s Mary Street School, in the 1950’s. It contained illustrations of approximately 30 items described as blasts from the past. Among them were ice cube trays with levers, Studebaker cars, juke boxes, and candy cigarettes. When I had scrolled to the bottom of these images, I discovered a line that read “if you can remember all of these, then you are old.” Reluctantly, I admitted that I could clearly remember everything, with the exception of someone called Marlin Perkins and a beverage identified as Falstaff beer.

When I replied to my former classmate’s e-mail, I observed that we were, indeed, vintage. Then, I asked if he could remember penny candy. My question prompted both of us to reminisce about Scott’s Groceteria, a small corner store near the present location of Cope-Barrett. My friend confided that he often stopped there on his way to school. I, too, remembered counting out my pennies to buy blackballs, caramels, and sourballs, all at three for a cent. We also recalled wax lips, licorice pipes, and similar confections that tickled the tongues of the younger set.

While sharing our memories of penny candy, I confided that my experience with these sweets did not end in childhood. When I was 17 years old, I took a summer job at East End Grocery, a corner store at Main and Division Streets. The proprietor, Johnny Kavanaugh, was one of the few local grocers who still sold penny sweets.

The candy counter was located behind the counter, immediately to the left of the cash register. Pasteboard boxes were filled with taste treats including Jujubes, chocolate and butterscotch caramels, blackballs, sourballs, candy cherries, licorice babies, and candy wafers in pastel colours, which were imprinted with messages such as ‘I Love You’. Beside the candy counter was a stack of small brown paper bags waiting to be filled.

Initially, I was intrigued by the penny candy display, for it brought back fond memories of my childhood. However, I quickly came to regard these sweets as an irritating carry-over from another era. When neighbourhood children came into the story, many of them brought pop bottles to be redeemed for penny candy. When I had paid them their deposit fees, they would then gaze intently at the selection of penny candy, before slowly deciding on their purchases. Often, it took five minutes or more, for a youngster to fill a small paper sack with candy. As my small customers stood on tip-toe to peer over the counter, often a line-up of impatient grown-ups with grocery items formed behind them.

After working at the store, for a short time, I decided that a candy express lane was urgently needed. I began by trying to hurry the children along as they made their choices. I would suggest that licorice whips were an excellent value or mention that blackballs would outlast caramels, but as I began to reach for these treats, the children invariably would counter my recommendations with requests for other confections. It was not unusual for them to change their minds three or four times. Drastic action obviously was needed.

With Johnny’s consent, I introduced the grab bag. I made up these bags of penny candy in three sizes priced at a nickel, a dime, and a quarter (for the big spenders). I, then, twisted the tops of the paper sacks tightly and placed them on the counter where the penny candy had previously been displayed. The children’s initial reaction was one of disbelief. I was immediately asked where the licorice babies had gone and small customers began to argue that they were not about to spend a nickel for a bag of treats that might not contain any blackballs. I stood firm and told them that they would have to pay their money and take their chances. To mollify them, I assured them that I had carefully selected a variety of candies and they could be sure that at least one of their favourites would be found in every paper sack.

After a few days, it became obvious that my new marketing scheme was a failure. The sale of penny candy plummeted. No longer able to savour the delightful experience of choosing, our little customers had decided to boycott the candy counter. By mutual agreement, Johnny and I made a return to the old system. All of the grab bags were emptied and free choice was restored. Throughout my two-year career as a grocery store clerk, I continued to tap my foot impatiently, as neighbourhood youngsters, each day, began the painstaking selection of their candy.

In later years, I came to realize that, for my small customers, selecting the right candy was almost as much fun as eating it. With only a few cents in their pockets, the world was at their feet. They possessed that heady sense of power that comes with the freedom to choose. Their mothers might have told them what to wear that day and their teachers had decided what they would learn, but when it came to penny candy they were free to buy whatever they liked.

Today, I wonder if the children I once served with such impatience will one day recall penny candy as a special part of their childhood. If they do, I hope they will have no recollection of East End Grocery’s cranky clerk. Now that the internet has proclaimed me officially old, I have realized the error of my youthful ways.

Filed Under: Margaret Haylock-Capon

About the Author: Maggie Haylock is a freelance writer and former newspaper reporter who has co-authored several books with her husband, Alan Capon.

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