One of my fondest memories of growing up in Gray’s Ferry was the continuous cornucopia of penny candies available at the corner stores, Phil’s at 29th & Reed, Shinn’s at 29th and Wharton, The Store at Tasker and 29th Street, Moore’s Drug Store at 28th and Moore and many others that escape my memory. Without a doubt, recess at Saint Gabriel School offered its own confectionery delights, with boxes of candies available for sale. Mary Janes, Hershey Bars, Philadelphia Soft Pretzels and the ever popular option of a half pint of juice or milk to wash down the calories. How the I.H.M.’s and teachers at Saint Gabriel School contained students with the sugar high demonstrates not only their educational techniques, but also is a testimony to the absolute Catholic control these great women had over their students. Half a dozen I.H.M.’s with pointers could quell a rebellion in Gray’s Ferry, Havana, Cuba or anywhere else order needed restoration. I suppose that is because we often thought that their religious novitiate included training with the United States Marines! God bless them, and their great work. God is rewarding them for their extreme tolerance with generations of Gray’s Ferry students that frayed their nerves every day. In the ages before Prozac and Ritalin it astounds me that these holy women had the motivation to return to the convent for evening prayers and not hoist a few pints to relieve their own stress’
Anyhow, the corner store was the most superlative example of a benefit of living in a neighborhood like Gray’s Ferry. Each one offered anything and everything a kid could want to spend whatever change was jingling in their pockets. They had candies, they had pretzels & sodas. Penny candies were favorites. There were orange and wintergreen slices, chocolates, Mary Janes, Tootsie Rolls and many other selections from which to choose. Usually, the owner’s of the stores were more than happy to oblige kids with what they wanted and were glad for the business. Other merchants, Jerry at 28th and Dickinson, really didn’t want kids or anyone for that matter in his store, Norman at Tasker and Newkirk Streets always though someone was trying to shoplift from him, so buying candies there was equivalent to a pat down at an airport today. Despite their curmudgeonly notion of child control, it was a great challenge for Gray’s Ferry kids to make Norman’s and Jerry ‘s blood pressure to skyrocket by not buying anything from them after browsing their merchandise. Neighborhood kids in Gray’s Ferry not only enjoyed the various fruits of the local stores, they also knew the buttons to push to throw the merchants into an Apollo-like orbit! Oh well, Saturday Confession took care of that, a few Hail Mary’s, a couple of Our Father’s abrogated the venial sins and prepared everyone for Mass and Communion on Sunday and another week of school, studies and driving the local corner store owners off the deep end!
Of course, penny candies are now a memory, the closest substitutes are the candies at Dollar Stores, where it is always amusing to ask the clerk, “How much, for this?” The contemporary successors to the corner stores, Dollar Stores lack the quirky characters that Gray’s Ferry had as store owners. Customer service was not their forte! Gray’s Ferry store owners chased you out of their stores at whim, usually pushing you out the door! Shinn’s at 29th and Wharton cared very little about what kids wanted to buy. If you didn’t come in the door already determined with what you wanted, with cash in hand…you were thrown out! The joys of small enterprise!
The decline of corner stores that had candies, pretzels, hoagies, cheese steaks , pizzas and everything else a kid or an adult could ever want or need was the decline of neighborhoods like Gray’s Ferry. In the 1970’s corner stores were demolished to plant a few trees, with a few park benches to beautify the neighborhoods in Philadelphia. It indeed beautified the neighborhoods, but forced small corner stores to become part of our collective memories and Philadelphia’s neighborhoods history. Water ice, candies and soft pretzels are now available at Rita’s…where you stand at the window, outside as if you lived in the Soviet Union’s Moscow waiting for toilet paper, or meat rations.
Unique store merchants like Phil, Norman, Shinny and Jerry are gone. Kid’s today will never experience corner store owners that used to make your hoagie, with a cigarette hanging out of their mouths, savor a Jewish Pickle picked out of a barrel by a guy in a wife beater shirt with hairy arms diving into the bottom of the barrel or experience the delectable delights of candies that were unwrapped in open air waiting for purchase in un-air conditioned stores that had ceiling fans slowly rotating the flies towards fly strips strategically placed throughout the stores! Oh, Gray’s Ferry…with your uniquely colorful and honest lifestyle…where have you gone?
The last time I asked, you were all in Washington Township, New Jersey…looking for penny candies!
Have a great Fish Friday…after all it’s Lent!
Freelance author, teacher and technology consultant…Hugh McNichol has studied both theology and philosophy at Philadelphia’s Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary and holds a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy. Hugh holds a M.A. in theology from Villanova University and is continuing work towards his doctorate in sacred theology(STD).
His writings promote deeper understanding of the Catholic faith, while hoping to provide topics of good discussion among all Catholics.