Everybody says kids today aren’t like the kids when we were growing up, but this bunch belied that. They swarmed into the ice cream/candy store where George and I nursed cones at a little table in the back, and started checking out every bin, every barrel, every jar for the perfect way to spend the bit of change clutched in their hands.
Wiley’s was one of those tiny grocery stores that have disappeared from neighborhood landscapes, run by a little old couple who were probably far younger than I am now. It was about four blocks from our house, and I remember the first time Mom sent me there alone to buy some milk. I was terrified. For a kid who wasn’t allowed off our block, this was an excursion into normally forbidden territory.
Only much later did I learn that Mom followed me at a discreet distance to be sure I didn’t forget how to get there. She saw me stop at a corner and stand in panicked indecision, and undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief when I turned in the right direction. That’s nothing to the way I felt when the familiar little green building came into sight.
On Sundays after Mass, we always stopped at Wiley’s so Dad could get the Sunday papers–the Chicago Sun Times, and the Chicago Tribune. Once home, with dinner done, I’d climb into his lap while he read “Nancy” to me. “Nancy” never seemed as funny when I was old enough to read it for myself.
But the best part of Wiley’s store was the candy counter, with rows of 5-cent and 10-cent bars–bigger than the ones we pay over a buck for now–Turkish taffy, licorice whips, Black Jack, Clove, and Juicy Fruit gums, and shelf after shelf of penny candy. I have to wonder whether the owners ever regretted stocking that, because the neighborhood kids kept them standing there, and standing there, and standing there, while we debated about how to spend our pennies.
It was also the store that proved to me that Grandmas can be rebels. My grandma, who lived next door to us, was diabetic, and candy was definitely not allowed. Every now and then she’d call us over, along with whoever of our friends was around, and pass out pennies to each of us.
“Now you can have a pretzel march,” she’d say, lining us up and expecting us to literally march down to Wiley’s for one of the long, salted pretzel sticks that stood in a jar on the counter.
“And here’s a dime,” she’d add. “Get me a Baby Ruth.” It was understood that this secondary purchase wasn’t something we told my mother about.
Now, sitting there at Door County Confectionery with George, I watched this group of kids deliberating with familiar seriousness over their choices. They each held a bag in their hands, and I chuckled as they added items, moved on, found something better, went back to remove items–and return them to exactly where they’d found them–and continued the process over and over as they moved from basket to basket.
The store was a far cry from little Wiley’s Store. There were a thousand more choices, all displayed enticingly in bushel baskets, crystal candy jars or–in the case of the salt-water taffy–in a big white bath tub. There were homemade candies, too, chocolates and dipped pretzels and fudge and other tempting goodies that I didn’t dare look at too closely. The kids, though, like every kid I’ve known, preferred the colorful hard candies of questionable flavors that we adults have come to ignore.
Later I learned that this was a group of home-schooled children, and they made this trip to the candy store every week. Always well-behaved, I was told; very polite, never tearing through the store at rip-tide speed, and never mixing varieties in the bins in their search for the week’s perfect treat.
In these days of cell phones and iPads and other expensive gadgets for even the very young, it was refreshing to see kids excited over 50 cents-worth of penny candy. Wiley’s Store, long gone in actuality, has been reincarnated here in Sturgeon Bay.