Ray’s Candy Store on Avenue A is a remnant of an older New York that seems to be slipping away from us. Seventy-eight year old Ray Alvarez has spent more years of his life than not as the owner of the Candy Store. This well known snack spot has served Belgian fries, egg creams, a bevy of cigarette brands, milkshakes and personality 24 hours a day for over 40 years.
Not many months ago, over a tray of Belgian fries and a variety of dipping sauces–horseradish mayo, curry ketchup and cilantro pesto mayo–Ray shared stories of the neighborhood in the 70 s. Now with rents well beyond my income bracket, once this part of Manhattan was so undesirable to live in drug lords were able to buy entire apartment blocks for a few thousand dollars. Ray claims to have employed punks from the neighborhood to work the counter with him through the night as security. He points to an old cassette deck that he once owned and had to repurchase from a man who regularly burglarized the neighborhood only to resell the goods to the individuals he had lifted them from–at a discounted rate no doubt. Ray tells it with surprising nostalgia. Like sharing the war stories that eventually earned him his medal of honor. It was a much different corner in Alphabet City in those days, but today Ray’s Candy Store seems to be faced with a new set of problems that we hope aren’t insurmountable.
Not shortly after Ray’s was saved by neighborhood donations from what was reportedly over a thousand dollars in over due rent in late 2010, Ray’s Candy Store now wears the yellow sign of a failed City Department health inspection. With multiple infractions that include mice infestation and improper head covering Ray’s Candy Store sits with its doors quietly closed. The usual crowd still gathers night after night to watch life go by on the avenue but Ray isn’t around to offer shelter and snacks nor to contribute his own chronology of the neighborhood that has seen infamous public unrest as well as gentrification.
The fries might have been soggy, the sauces unnecessary and Ray’s left eye slightly slid to the left in a way that makes you wonder which parts of the conversation were directed towards you or the kitchen top. However, I don’t doubt that more is lost than gained by the closure of the Candy Store. If the city inexplicably continues to surrender the mom and pop shops that give it its idiosyncratic character in favor of dime a dozen chains able to pay the inflated rents post-gentrification, then eventually we will hardly know New York City from Columbus (I offer this comparison after a recent visit to Ohio and feel confident in saying this is no American city we want to be mistaken for). I might avoid the soft serve ice cream cone–which is delicious with the soggy fries–until Ray meets the requirements for city health code. That being said, I do hope city officials find a way to offer assistance and/or subsidies for the business owners who are the true historians and landmarks of a complicated but beloved neighborhood.
113 Ave A, East Village, New York City