Sweet Memories, Smart Strategies

Brooklyn’s neighborhood candy stores were the heart of the community
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Posted March 11, 2020

Growing up in Brooklyn was a foundational experience like no other. It’s difficult to explain the magic of the place to those whose roots weren't firmly planted in the hardscrabble streets of the famous outer borough. It was a city within a city; a commingling of neighborhoods, from Flatbush to Bay Ridge. We all coexisted, and we all got along. We had Coney Island, the Dodgers, The Bridge, Prospect Park, Sheepshead Bay and Steeplechase. We played stickball and punchball in the streets, and built wooden scooters out of roller skates and milk boxes. We indulged in chocolate egg creams, and loved pushcart knishes, kosher delis, pizza parlors and, of course, the corner candy store.

The mass production of candy began in jolly old England more than 150 years ago. In the early days of the 20th century, however, New York assumed its role as the candy-making capital of the world. And if one were to cross the East River from Manhattan into Brooklyn, they would find themselves in the heart of candy land. The borough across the bridge produced millions of pounds of candy every year while being the home to more than 500 neighborhood candy stores.

Whether it was Ernie’s, located under the ‘el’ in Bensonhurst, or Mike’s on Avenue ‘L’ in Canarsie, the candy store was an integral part of life in Brooklyn. The hardworking Brooklynites who ran the neighborhood confectionaries, from Ernie and Mike to Phil, Louie, Sydney and Katy, knew that their stores were more than just a place to buy candy. They were community hubs, meeting places, rendezvous points, debate halls, discussion centers and places for transactions (legal, clandestine or otherwise). Some had benches on the outside under the Breyer’s Ice Cream sign for the locals to gather for the latest gossip and neighborhood news or analysis of the ballgame the night before.

Of course each of the little sweet shops had long counters filled with bins and jars of candy, a line of rotating counter stools, a soda fountain where one could order a black and white ice cream soda or two scoops of Breyer’s vanilla fudge on a sugar cone. The front of the stores always had bulletin boards announcing everything from piano lessons, babysitting services, social events, the sale of a tricolor Chevy Bel Air, or the premiere of Cousin Frankie’s rock-and-roll band.

Some had a backroom with a red Coca-Cola cooler filled with glass soda bottles, a couple of round cafe tables with metal chairs and a pinball machine or two, where excited teens would spend hours trying to get their names on top of the leader board. The New York Post, The Mirror, and the Brooklyn Eagle were neatly stacked on homemade plywood newsstands just outside the front door, while an entire wall on the inside was devoted to a wide range of comic books, from Archie and Veronica to Superman, Spiderman and Wonder Woman.

The proprietors of these local mom-and-pop shops may not have been the merchant princes of the day, but they understood the true unwritten role of their beloved neighborhood stores. They knew that their small shops were the heartbeat of the community. Brooklyn’s neighborhood candy stores had heart, spirit and soul. They had empathy for their customers and were happy to provide them with a place to be. They knew that if the neighborhood folks thought of the local store as their store, they would remain loyal and return day after day. As today’s retailers continue to make great strides toward maximizing the customer journey through a melding of technology and experiential brick-and-mortar environments, they may benefit by taking a page out of the Brooklyn confectioners’ playbook. They may ask themselves, “What would the community miss if our store didn’t exist?”

So when the curtain rises at the beginning of each day, don’t simply open your doors, but rather, open your arms, invite them in, encourage them to stay and inspire them to mingle, to take pictures and post. Show them your sweet side, and they will return.

Eric Feigenbaum is a recognized leader in the visual merchandising and store design industries with both domestic and international design experience. He served as corporate director of visual merchandising for Stern’s Department Store, a division of Federated Department Stores, from 1986 to 1995. After Stern’s, he assumed the position of director of visual merchandising for WalkerGroup/CNI, an architectural design firm in New York City. Feigenbaum was also an adjunct professor of Store Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology and formerly served as the chair of the Visual Merchandising Department at LIM College (New York) from 2000 to 2015. In addition to being the Editorial Advisor/New York Editor of VMSD magazine, Eric is also a founding member of PAVE (A Partnership for Planning and Visual Education). Currently, he is also president and director of creative services for his own retail design company, Embrace Design.