I’ve been a candy maven as long as I can remember. Ironically, it was Grandpa David, immigrant to the Lower East Side, who got me hooked. When I was wee, about five or six, I used to work in his auto parts store in Uniontown, Pennsylvania—”work” consisting of putting purchases in paper bags. (He once yelled at me for wasting a bag on a single screwdriver.) At the end of the day, he’d give me a quarter, which I’d take to the penny candy emporium right next door.
If you’re not of a certain age you won’t remember how far a quarter could go in the 1950s, particularly when candy was one cent per piece—or even less. For twenty-five cents you could get a sizable bag of the stuff. But oy, the choices! Would it be a tiny wax bottle filled with fluorescent, saccharine fluid, or maybe a paper strip speckled with dots of sugar, or a licorice whip, or a few chocolate babies, or jawbreakers, or orange marshmallow “circus peanuts”? And you had to make twenty-five choices. It took a long time, and of course the woman behind the counter would get impatient with the grubby urchin determined to get both full value and full variety for his quarter.
Since my childhood, I’ve sampled sweets throughout the world, from the tamarind candies of Mexico to the pista barfi of India, and I haven’t found any that I didn’t like (save, perhaps, the salted, sugared and licorice-flavored preserved plums of China). But there’s nothing like the penny candy stores of my youth. You can find a few places that cater to boomer nostalgia by selling individual candies from bins, but they’re overpriced and phony.
But there’s this:
Economy Candy, on Rivington Street, is just a few short blocks from Katz’s Delicatessen. Opened in 1937, it’s been in the hands of the Cohen family ever since. It’s large, and it sells nothing but candy. Walking in is like taking a big bite of that madeleine. And you won’t find any kids in there: just adults reliving their youth.
Economy does make a half-hearted nod toward upper-class tastes: they stock some waxy-looking chocolates and a variety of European sweets, but their real forte is nostalgic American candies. You may not be able to buy them by the piece, but they’re there: the wax bottles, the licorice whips, the circus peanuts—the whole megillah. You’ll see stuff you thought they stopped making ages ago:
Sky bars, with their five individually-filled segments! Mallo Cups, set to ooze white goo all over your shirt! Black Jack gum! Bonomos’s Turkish Taffy, which we used to slap on the pavement to crack into bits. Necco Wafers (if you break the white ones apart in the dark, they make a spark.) Sugar Daddies!: those caramel suckers so efficient at removing fillings. It’s impossible to visit this store and not leave with a sack of nostalgic treats. (See a list of them here; note that there’s six pages of the stuff.) And lest you ask, “So what’s so Jewish about this store besides its owners?”, there’s this:
Halvah is the King of Candies. The sesame-paste version isn’t 100% Jewish, but Middle Eastern; the name, however, comes from the Yiddish, and in America the candy is specifically associated with Jews. You’ll either love it or hate it, and I happen to love it. It’s dense, oily, and crumbly, with a very slight bitterness of the sesame that offsets its sweetness. It’s an adult candy, complex and sophisticated, like good theology. I eschew the fancy chocolate-covered varieties for the plain ones.
You can mail order the old-time favorites, and much else, from Economy’s website.