Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Sweet Banana

Originally published for Eater's "Bodega Week" in March (hence the bodega questions), my profile of the Sweet Banana Candy Store, which is slated to be shuttered by the Stonehenge Group by the end of this month, along with several other long-time small businesses on the block.

The Sweet Banana Candy Store has been run by "Candy Lady" Patricia on 9th Avenue and 17th Street in Chelsea for the past 15 years. Wearing its age proudly, without a hint of vanity, it sits on a ragtag block that has somehow managed to stay frozen in time, almost untouched by the hyper-gentrifying waves that push in from all sides.

The shop's battered awning slumps down over a front window spattered with graffiti and ads for USA Gold brand cigarettes and Slush Puppie frozen drinks. A neon sign advertising "Fresh Coffee" has lost its light.

Patricia doesn't consider her shop a bodega. "It's a candy store," she tells me with a shrug from behind her counter where a postcard of a handgun-toting Jesus Christ guards the cash register. But Sweet Banana does have many markings of the bodega breed: lottery, ribbons of scratch tickets, bags of plantain chips, a display of vintage pocket hair brushes that fit right in the palm of your hand ("Slip it over your middle finger and feel the relaxation spread as it glides through your hair and gently massages your scalp").

And there's the quintessential hardworking bodega cat who likes to lounge among the newspaper stacks.

A few years ago, when Sweet Banana got a new landlord, we thought we'd lose it, but it somehow survived, despite the rapid changes that surround it. Asked how her business has been since the the rising tides of "MePa" and the High Line began flooding the neighborhood, Patricia shrugs and says, "So-so. It's okay." She's a woman of few words.

Patricia the candy lady

Sweet Banana also serves as a social center for many people of the neighborhood. Men and women hang out here to talk and spend time together.

On most days you can find a friendly woman named Hassie seated behind the stuffed candy rack, selling hot homemade empanadas from an insulated bag for a dollar apiece. They are delicious and come straight from her kitchen on 22nd Street where she has lived for her entire 52 years.

"We keep each other company," Hassie says of her time spent in Patricia's store. She appreciates how Patricia keeps her prices low so the neighborhood people can afford to shop, and she likes to watch the kids come in from the junior high and high school nearby. They come in packs, laughing and gossiping, to grab handfuls of their favorite candies out of the big wooden bin--individually wrapped Circus Peanuts and Swedish fish, mini Butterfingers and Laffy Taffy, Charms Blow Pops and Dum Dums.

Hassie tells me how she and Patricia have watched many of their neighbors grow up. "From little kids, they go to college and come back, and they visit her. They always come back here."

Sweet Banana is more than a candy store or a bodega, it's a meeting place and a home base, a part of the family for many local people. They go away from the neighborhood knowing that Sweet Banana will be here when they return. Of course, with the massive changes happening all around it, how much longer can it last? [This was written before we knew the answer to that question would be June 30.]

Further reading about this block:
New Barber Shop
Death of a Block II
Death of a Block
Saving 9th Avenue
Sweet Banana Candy Store
Chelsea Liquors
New China


esquared™ said...

Next thing you know there'll be selling photos of Sweet Banana Candy Store for thousands of dollars at an exhibit by some upscale boutique shop.

randall said...

I could be wrong about this, but I don't think it's that she doesn't consider her store a bodega, but to a certain breed of new yorkers (likely those born and raised here before 1960 or so), a candy store and bodega are pretty much interchangeable.

My dad has told me many stories about this guy he knew growing up who's family owned a candy store in Brooklyn and from what he describes it is pretty much the same as what some people call a bodega.

Contrast with "Dylan's Candy Bar"

Laura Goggin Photography said...

@esquared - heh!

This is the sort of 'home base' you'll never find in a Duane Reade, bank branch, Subway or $600 t-shirt store. Then again, the city is becoming less like a 'home' and more like a hotel room.