By David Nilsen
Eleven years old and I am scrawny and awkward but smart, more athletic than I look, poorly dressed. She is new to town, the new principal’s daughter, one year younger than I; pretty, coltish, as athletic as she looks, well dressed. She hasn’t learned yet that the pretty ones don’t fall for the geeks.
I cross the soccer field during a game at church on a Wednesday evening, and she runs to stay beside me, though we don’t speak. She positions herself beside me for the game of red rover inconspicuously, knowing it will give us an excuse to hold hands, an event made no less palpitating by the fact the game requires it. She wears fuschia like a birthright.
Sunday, my house, and her family is over for lunch. We spend an hour pretending we aren’t aware the other is there. Then, my room, and she grabs the baseball sized jawbreaker from my hand and wipes it across her sweaty forehead and giggles and gives it back. I taste the jawbreaker and she laughs again. I wonder how to keep her around, so salty and kind.
A month later, another Wednesday, and this time a church volleyball game in the middle of town, a block from Broadway. We play the bizarre games church children invent when the grown ups are occupied, rules so strange and rigid, and she and I are a team because we say so, and we take on all challengers in the semi-darkness of the brick alley. Olley olley oxen free and there’s yet another ghost in the graveyard. My shirt has a mastodon skeleton on the front.
I run to my mom and beg a dollar in change for Bonfiglio’s, the candy store downtown, a neon-signed truth of my childhood. She asks her mom if she can come with me and her mom says no, and I get turned down for my first date. I run and buy candy for both of us and run back to put this food on her table and the next thing I can remember she’s moving away a year later. I see her once in high school and she’s learned about the pretty ones and the geeks.
Bonfiglio’s was the quintessential small-town shop. I know little about the store from before I was old enough to dump a pile of candy and a pocket full of change on the counter and force the patient cashier to count out both. I know little about the store now. Some of you reading might know quite a bit more; you might know the former owner, or the exact year it opened, or how it used to be arranged before I walked into it the first time. You might have a memory of buying cold bottled Coke there on a hot day in the summer of 1969 or swapping stories at the counter after the town dug out from the blizzard of 1978. I can probably find old pictures of the storefront at Garst Museum, Broadway decked out like a Norman Rockwell painting. But for me, Bonfiglio’s will always be the place I bought candy to sneak into the cheap theater next door, or to take on a family vacation bracketed on both ends by interminably long drives passed with the aid of sugar and comic books. It was the type of main street business that was timeless, providing images and recollections that seem to claim the place for each generation as their own.
But it wasn’t timeless. Bonfiglio’s pharmacy will never exist again. More importantly, no store like it will ever open again. There are certainly similar shops around the country still sweeping off their doorsteps each morning, but eventually, their owners will retire, or die, or lose the fight against the chain stores, and they too will close. They won’t be reopened. Bonfiglio’s closed in 2011 after nearly six decades of business. The owners stayed the course in the face of the retail giants at the north end of town, and locked the doors only when it was time to retire. I applaud them this, and I wish them relaxation now. Still, it is strange to think my daughter will never know a shop like that one. When she and I buy our candy to sneak into the movies, we get it from Family Dollar.
One summer when my sister was home from college she and I went to see some awful flick at Wayne Cinema, back when it was a second-run theater and tickets were a buck. We walked into Bonfiglio’s with a couple dollars and counted out the exact measure of candy we could get for pennies or nickels apiece, brand names that meant more than their questionable taste; they were the chocolate-covered and candy-coated Ebenezers to all the celebratory nights throughout our short history—family vacations, movie nights, campouts, drive-ins. We stuffed our pockets, the theater employees let us think we were competent at hiding it, and we ate enough sugar to stop our hearts. I didn’t really care about the movie but cared a great deal about basking in my sister’s attention for an evening at a time when she would soon be getting married and moving away. I was twelve years old. We haven’t lived in the same state now for 20 years.
When Bonfiglio’s closed they held a large auction to sell off the fixtures and inventory. It was hot. I walked through the crowded aisles of tables that filled the shop, the storerooms, even the rear parking lot. Everything was for sale, down to unopened boxes of candy, unsharpened pencils, even the neon OPEN sign on the front door. I bid on that sign. I possibly considered bidding on some of the candy too, because candy. But in the end, it was just the sign. At the time, I was planning to open a bookstore downtown, and I wanted to use the sign for my storefront and maintain a connection with a shop I loved that had done so well for so long. I let the bid go around fifty dollars. I realize now I should have bought it, even if it only ever hung in my kitchen.
You don’t need me to tell you things have changed, that small business now is not what it used to be, that what we gain in convenience we often lose in connection. You already know big box stores and online retailers have changed everything, mostly for the worse. As I said earlier, those factors didn’t close down Bonfiglio’s anyway. In some ways, though, the fact that the shop closed because the time had just come to close almost makes the loss even more poignant and bittersweet. The time for a general store that sells greeting cards, candy, cold pop and school supplies without asking if you’re a Rewards Club Member has passed. The time when uneven floors and out-of-date carpet led you to a prescription counter is now fading into nostalgia.
Everything got sold on that hot September afternoon. There is no more wall of penny candy, no more Poison Ivy Remedy everyone bought at least once even though it was damn useless and didn’t work, no more bags of stale popcorn and glass bottles of Coke. The storefront is now occupied by a hip and locally owned retail clothing boutique. The store is charming, and is all my daughter will remember ever being there.
And so farewell to the 5th-grade girl who didn’t know the rules and my teenage sister who left town; farewell to spending a dollar on sour candy and sneaking it into Jurassic Park twice in the same week; farewell to small town shop owners who do things their own way. The older I get the less remains of my childhood outside my memory. The theater is still there and doing okay, two titles a week on small, dusty screens, and I’ve taken my daughter there enough times she will surely remember it even if that too closes. The library, though expanded and rearranged, is still essentially the same place. Strangely, I remember all the cemeteries by all the churches I played at on summer evenings as a child, the furtive games of capture the flag in the dark between headstones, and those are going nowhere. That’s the sum of the concrete evidence for my childhood in this town, wrapped up in the library and the cinema and the dead. There is no family homestead to return to, and I can’t tell you where a single one of my family members is buried in this entire country. There are buildings to point out to my daughter, monuments to my childhood, but the shops that filled them are no longer there. She’ll have to buy her candy somewhere else.