Above: An old-fashioned soda fountain. This photo, from the New York Public Library digital collections, comes as close as I could find to Sidney’s Brooklyn candy store; it shows the interior of Beach Park Drug Co., Midland Beach, Staten Island, N.Y.
Sidney Gross (1940–2016)
Trying after these many years to reconstruct the geography of my old Brooklyn neighborhood, one inescapable fact looms large—we must have had more candy stores per square block than any other place in the world. You can see from the pictures how fat I was as a child. I recently questioned my mother about my youthful physique, and she put the blame squarely on my grandmother. Bertha thought I was too skinny, and she was always admonishing me to EAT. I have heard tell that many immigrants from Central Europe believed that people on the beefy side were immune to tuberculosis. Maybe they were right; certainly nobody in my circle ever contracted TB.
If my grandmother really did hold this view, we certainly lived in the right neighborhood. With all the candy stores lining Bay Parkway, it would have been impossible for a child to starve. The candy store as I knew it was an institution which could not possibly survive in this age of franchises. Each bore the stamp of its individual owner.
A typical candy store, by the way, did not sell boxed candy. It sold hand-packed ice cream, tobacco, newspapers, fountain creations, and candy bars. Most of these stores had large metal signs which hung flush with their plate glass windows. The signs were provided gratis by the purveyors of the sweet goods. I can recall three major types, supplied by Breyer’s, Coca Cola, and Borden’s. The Breyer’s sign had a large minty green leaf, while Coca Cola had the famous red circle and signature. The Borden Company sign was my favorite. It graphically depicted the variety of Borden ice cream products—cones, mello rolls, ice pops, all done up in an enamel finish which unfortunately oxidized in the sunlight over the years. What had been an orange ice pop when I was a kid was bleached to a pale lemon on my last visit to the old neighborhood a decade ago.
Block’s candy store, strategically located on the route from home to my grade school, P.S. 226, was typical. Right outside the door was a rickety wood stand which held the day’s collection of newspapers, not only the Times and the Daily News, but the Journal American, the Herald Tribune, the World Telegram, the Daily Forward, and of course the Brooklyn Eagle. An old cigar box casually flung atop the stack of papers held a generous supply of small change, mostly pennies. You helped yourself to one or more papers and made your own change from the box on the honor system. Every evening it was a ritual with us to go out after eight and pick up the next day’s paper. More often than not we would fortify ourselves with an ice cream cone in anticipation of the long night ahead, sans food!
The interior of Block’s was long and narrow. It was lighted by four or five inadequate bulbs in white glass bowls hanging from the ornate metal ceiling. Between the lighting fixtures were ceiling fans, the kind with the long wooden paddles which make maybe one revolution per minute and never do any good. The layout of the store was calculated to tempt the weak in spirit from the moment of entry.
Right next to the door was a child-high rack of comic books and annuals. The array was inexhaustible and pandered to all tastes, from Captain Marvel and Superman, to Donald Duck and Tales of the Crypt. For the more “intellectual,” like me, there were Classics Comics as well. A standard joke book cost a dime, and the annuals, which came out several times a year and were two or three times as thick, sold for a quarter. Joke books cost quite a bit of money, comparatively speaking, back then. I might also add that in the fifties, there was no such institution as the Comics Code, so lord only knows what kinds of fantasies we kids regularly imbibed.
Directly in front of the door was an enclosed glass counter full of cigars, cigarettes, lighter flints and fluid. Of course these items weren’t for kids, but the Blocks were consummate merchandisers. Alongside the boxes of ordinary cigars were two or three of bubble gum made to look like the real thing, except they were pink, green, or blue. I would often swagger through the door, put my elbows atop the case, and demand of Mr. Block that he “Gimme a cigar.” Bubble gum is what I got, but it made me feel grown up nevertheless.
To the right of the tobacco counter was a black marble fountain, which ran almost the entire length of the store. It looked a lot like the laboratory demonstration table in the science room at school, but instead of natural gas and compressed air, the spigots dispensed seltzer water and cherry syrup. The Blocks presided like surgeons among the shiny chrome fixtures. Behind the fountain was a long mirror, so that the customers could observe the Blocks at work, and the Blocks would no doubt observe the customers. On the retail side was a line of high pedestal stools, which swiveled effortlessly on ball bearings. The seats of the stools were covered in red oil cloth, which was periodically slashed by mischief makers and had to be replaced.
Although I could have gotten anything at Block’s fountain—sundaes, frappes, plain sodas, floats, ice cream sodas, or banana splits, I always ordered the same thing: a vanilla malted. I suppose it was my Scotch instinct. At twenty cents, a malt was somewhere in the price scale between a plain soda and a sundae. But more important, it was made in a huge stainless steel cylinder whose capacity was so large that it held more than a single glass worth of the heavenly liquid. There was as much ritual involved in preparing a malt as there was in any of the ice cream creations, and the smooth whir of the beater on the malted milk machine was enough to make me drool in anticipation. I can still see Mr. Block pouring the heavy white liquid into my glass and then setting the cylinder down on the counter in front of me so that I could consume the remainder after I’d drained the first glass.
Today they serve malteds in plastic cups, which ruins the sensual delight of the whole thing. Sunday afternoon was the traditional time that I visited Block’s fountain. I suppose that my parents felt it would put me in a positive spirit for the impending school week.