Sunday, September 14, 2014
Why independent retailers are different
There’s something familiar about an old-fashioned candy store that takes you back in time. It’s a glance in the window when you spy a well-loved childhood favorite; a fading memory of a small corner shop in downtown Chicago; a dusty recollection of an afternoon spent with Grandma, when she took you to her favorite sweet shop. On a whim, you decide to check out a little shop which has been part of the landscape for years, a place you've rarely visited. As you push open the door, gently clanking bells announce your entry and then it hits you; this isn’t a chain store.
You’ve left behind the cookie cutter “every store the same” personality of identical floor plans and familiar layouts. Here, things look different, unusual and you suspect you may have crept back in time or into another dimension. And yet, there stacked on the shelves, sit some very familiar favorites – necco wafers, squirrel nut zippers, Bonomo Turkish Taffy, Sen-sens, marzipan acorns and more – things you haven’t seen in years and thought were extinct. Have they really been around all this time and you missed them? And why are they here, tucked away in a small shop filled with antique tins, memorabilia and personality?
On all sides you are surrounded by visual delights; gifts and merchandise, wooden signs and more. But what you came for is already swirling through your senses as the aroma of licorice, chocolate and spice drops greet you, bringing you to a stop in front of the antique candy counters. This is where raspberry jellies, almond bark, coconut creams and truffles are arranged in rows, layer upon layer of dark and milk chocolate goodies. Tags explain each item, and some offer more insight such as “made by the same company since 1895”. Another modestly mentions that this is “the only Marzipan ever sold in the shop” since they opened in 1979. Passing the counter you can’t help but slide your hand over the polished wood of the antique display cases.
You spy a sign which states "We have black licorice available in 25 varieties" and suddenly you are craving something you loved years ago in Holland when you discovered the birthplace of licorice. The clerk asks if you are seeking anything in particular and you stumble to describe it; the shape, was it perhaps anise in flavor - or more like a flat coin maybe? She invites you to come over to the counter to try a few pieces. Since there are so many kinds, she says, it’s best to sample a couple of varieties and see which one comes close to what you are looking for. The first one is not quite your thing; the second is close but the third....you close your eyes and enjoying what you remember from decades ago….and now it’s yours, right here. You leave your selection on the counter, and at the suggestion of the clerk, take the waxed paper with several pieces to enjoy as you stroll.
Displays featuring horehound drops, Clove, Blackjack, Clove and Beeman’s gum, jelly-filled butter mints, chocolate pretzels dressed in sprinkles, nuts, and toffee continue to spread out as you head towards the salt water waffy display. The window sign had boasted of the “largest selection anywhere around here”, and seeing the amazing 65 flavors available, you believe it. Molasses, pineapple, raspberry, watermelon, maple, chocolate mint, tropical punch, strawberry cheesecake, Neapolitan and mango are just a few of the choices available, as well as specialty “theme blends”. A laminated poster explains that many of the mixes have been created from customer requests over the years, and that there is even a "Salt Water Taffy #101" handout, which identifies each kind found in the Supreme Mix and lists all the flavors by their color.
Many of the tubs and bags of mints, wrapped candy and shoestring licorice have an additional label, clearly meant to offer you a bit more insight to what is really sold here. Some read “still made in the USA”, “manufactured by the same family company since 1925” or "yes, these are the original ones, since we don't sell the cheap imports". There are posters behind the counter informing customers of nut-free and gluten-free options, along with handouts that explain the legend of salt water taffy, the history of Bonomo's Turkish Taffy, or the history of Ben Hur's. It’s almost as if – well, it IS apparent - that everything here has a story. And, the store is proud to share that story with you.
Sigh. It’s time for me to return to daily life. The check out counter is smooth, old wood – a vintage general store icebox in fact – and like so many of the treats found here today, was crafted with skill and pride. When I ask why this place is so different, the answer is about what I’d expect – that the products the big chains offer companies from china are not what’s in stock here. That’s ok, because I’ll take what is here; I like knowing people care about what they offer and where it comes from. I collect my bags and reluctantly wind my way to the door. One last sniff of the delicious air and the bells gently clink again as I leave – but I’ll be back. The owner suggested I return with Grandma to see if we can find those mints that she has not found in decades, but has talked about for years. Just maybe she will find them here.
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