When we lived in the projects, there were no big malls anywhere close by, and the grocery stores weren't the superstores they are now. We bought just what we needed that week, and sometimes supplemented our refrigerator on a daily basis. To get anything for supper quickly, we simply walked to the corner store. To me, that little store on the corner was open for the main purpose of selling us kids penny candy.
Though we were poor, my mother attempted to give us some kind of small allowance every week. Before I reached fifth grade, it was usually between a nickel and a quarter a week. And as soon as that hot little piece of silver landed in my hand, I sprinted to the corner store to fill up a tiny brown paper sack with a variety of penny candies.
I had several favorites, and occasionally, I still find a general store that has the old standards. In fact, this Christmas, I found a small net bag of gold wrapped chocolates in the shape of different coins just like the ones I used to buy back in the early '60s at the little store on the corner of Road B and Ferry Street, across the street from Ski's Homemade Ice Cream.
For a nickel, I could get some strings of red licorice, a few sheets of sugar dots pasted on paper like the roll they put in adding machines, some of the chocolate coins I just mentioned, and a few hot balls that scorched your mouth and left your lips a bright red to rival any of out mothers' lipstick. I'd make that candy last as long as possible because I knew I wouldn't get another nickel anytime soon.
During the summer, that nickel might be spent on a Popsickle or a Fudgesickle that would start melting as soon as we walked down the block back to where we lived. My hand would be covered in grape Popsickle juice, and within a couple of minutes of standing in July's heat, it would be so sticky and smelly that it would take several washings to get it out of my skin. (What did they put in those things anyway? It was like dye!)
My mother also had special favorites from the store. If she had an extra nickel, she would send me down there to get a large sour pickle for her from the big wooden barrel they kept at the end of the deli counter. I'd walk in, letting the wooden screen door slam behind me, and ask whoever was minding the store to give me the biggest pickle from the barrel. They wrapped it in waxed paper, yet the smell still rose from the paper, permeating the air around me like a cloud on my walk home. My mother would eat it with relish (no pun intended), sucking in her cheeks and rolling her eyes with the sourness of it. She loved those stupid pickles. I have no idea how she could have eaten a whole one in one sitting, but she did.
My father, on the other hand, was a sweets man. He would rather take us kids across the street to Ski's for an ice cream on the weekends when he was home from work. He'd always get an ice cream sundae, but my favorite was their chocolate chip and if I could get it in a sugar cone, I thought I'd gone to heaven and was singing with the angels. That place had the absolute best homemade ice cream, and they'd stuff their containers so that there was at least an inch more above the top of the container, then they'd cover it with waxed paper and jam the lid atop that. It was like getting a fourth more than the container would hold. I'm not sure how they made any profit.
When we moved to Walnut Street, there was a corner store diagonally across the street from our house called Foley's. My biggest childhood fantasy came true when I had the chance to work there. Now I was behind the long glass counter where all the candy was sold. I kept those shelves neat with Milky Ways, Almond Bars, red and black licorice, boxes of Double Bubble bubble gum, jawbreakers, and Sugar Daddys. I even got to use the slicing machine when people wanted sandwich meats. The only problem was that there were many afternoons the store was quiet, and once I'd finished my homework, all those shelves of candy wove their hypnotic siren song. I spent almost my whole paycheck on candy, ice cream, and sodas and probably gained about ten pounds.
By the time I graduated from high school, some of the corner stores in Everett were already closed, but the last time I visited, we actually stopped at one that had been open since I was a kid. Today, it's more of a franchise than a family-owned business, and that makes me sad. We used to know the people behind the counter at those neighborhood stores. Now the small family businesses are gone, replaced by the sterile sameness of a chain store. Those stores will never provide the memory of a slamming screen door, of a child filling a candy bag with all sorts of treasures, or of the refreshing chill of a glass Coca Cola bottle as you popped the top and took your first swig. I never thought I'd become one of those people who think the old days were better than the now, but when it comes to corner stores, I can only say this: I miss them, their intimacy, their smells, and their personalities. Whether it was a corner store near where I grew up in the projects or the one near my cousins' summer home where the floor was covered with sawdust and locals could sit on the porch with their Coke bottles, they were part of the neighborhood and a convenience of friendship more than a money-making proposition. I think we should start a movement to restore small neighborhood businesses!