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The Penny-Candy Store

What is a penny worth? Nowadays, most people, if they should drop one, wouldn't even bother to bend over and pick it up. It is certainly not the currency that one would use to go shopping. Not anymore.

So it seems to me important that there is a penny candy store in Port Gamble, Washington. It's part of an old-fashioned General Store in an old-fashioned town that has become a kind of theme-park, roadside attraction on the North Olympic Peninsula. Every home, business and building has a 19th-century feel, and is beautifully maintained to re-create the tone and sensibility of another time. The General Store features the usual tourist knickknacks, a small but pretty good snack bar/restaurant, an upstairs sea shell museum, and best of all, a long counter with stools where a child can sit and contemplate a broad selection of penny candy. Of course, there are few candies that actually cost only penny anymore, but large glass jars contain some of them, and the others contain multiples: 3 cents each, 5 cents each, 10 cents each. Behind the counter are the usual candy bars, as well as some delicacies like rock crystal candy, giant jaw breakers and such exotica as double salt licorice. A child coming in with a dime or even a nickel can actually spend a fair amount of time shopping, tasting and selecting exactly the candy they want.

Of course, the key to that luxurious and inexpensive treat is the person behind the counter. Pat is a comfortably well-fed man of medium height, somewhere in his 50s, with the curly, long gray hair and half-kempt beard of a longtime traveler on the great road trip of the 1960s. He is inclined to wear slightly muted Hawaiian shirts, and always seems to have the hint of a smile, like a remnant trace of sugar coating, resting sweetly on his lips. He clearly loves children. Along with his wife, Susan, a pleasant, equally warm and welcoming person, they have made this store exactly the kind of place they hoped it would be, exactly the sort of place many of us of the same vintage remember from our childhoods.

My daughters and I go through Port Gamble every two weeks, on the way to taking them to catch the ferry for a weekend with their Dad. Stopping to see Pat and Susan is mandatory. The girls, eight and twelve, climb up on the stools, and immediately begin doing the arcane arithmetic that will tell them the exact equation of how many of what kind of candy equals a quarter. I usually go to the back of the store to get a cup of coffee, and to allow them time to catch up on the past couple week's events. Pat and I occasionally talk. The first time we really spoke he told me that this was the job he'd wanted all his life. He talked once about work he'd done for a veteran's memorial, and we both watched shadows of our eternal Viet Nam pass silently behind us. Mostly he talks about how many people had the barbecued burgers he fixes outside in the summer, and how the season gets pretty quiet after Labor Day. He also talks about how smart and polite he thinks my girls are, and especially for my older daughter, part of the treat in this stop is the chance for her to speak her mind to an adult who really listens. There's never a hurry to make them finish their candy selection, and there are almost always a few more sweeties in the bag than the cost can cover. This is a man who knows how to count things, but who also knows how to make things count.

But let's be clear about the realities of the world that we live in. For children today, mine no less than any others, candy is hardly a rarity. The days when a trip to town and the penny sweetie that would last in the memory for a week are long gone. Now it's actually more like another form of common currency that serves as a kind of parallel economy during the grade school years. But a Snicker or a Nutrageous from the stand at the supermarket is an entirely different thing than buying candy from Pat. Along with the sweets, there is a kind of metaphorical discourse about the relative value of shapes and flavors and textures and quantities. Both of my girls are quite outgoing, so there will also be discussion about school, the new town they're living in, other kids, what's cool and what isn't, and anything else that might be on their minds. More importantly, though, the girls understand that this store is how Pat and Susan make their living, and that they have chosen this kind of business because it gives them a chance to meet and know people, and to engage in a sweet and simple human transaction somehow connected to another time and another kind of community.

The locals have spent a great deal of time and money and effort making the little town of Port Gamble look like an authentic part of the past. The authentic buildings and antique shops and weekend food booths are the reason people stop on their way from here to there. Clearly, the covenants on keeping the look of the town authentic are stringent. But nothing is more authentic than the way Pat runs his penny candy counter. To some, candy for a penny may just seem like a good value, to others a given that you will get a cheap piece of sugar for a small price, but buying penny candy from Pat is all about an entirely different kind of value. I am very grateful for the chance to let my girls stop and shop at his General Store. He and Susan are making the idea of commerce about real people, and allowing us to reinforcing our belief that everyone we interact with in our daily lives is a person of unique worth and identity. The girls buy from Pat and Susan, not from a store. It is still, actually, quite amazing what you can get for a penny.