LAWRENCE — A piece of history, along with a thousands of pieces of candy and chocolate, will soon be disappearing from downtown.

The owners of Priscilla's Candies, 428 Essex St., said this week they are shutting down at the end of April after selling chocolate and hard candy for 72 years from a downtown storefront.

"We always knew when we got to this age that we'd retire," said Harriet Cooper, 64, who owns the business with her husband, Norman, 65. Their daughter, Rhonda Freitas, 42, who has worked there since she was a teenager, is not interested in staying on to run the business.

"She's ready to move on, too," Cooper said. They are closing their Derry retail store as well.

Combined with the departure of Van Otis Candies later this year, there will be no more candy retail/manufacturing companies in a city that once boasted as many as 62 confectionary shops.

"At one time, everything was in Lawrence," she said. "There were 23 candy shops alone on Essex Street."

According to the 1934 Lawrence Business Directory, there were 62 confectionary and/or ice cream establishments scattered throughout the downtown area, many of them on Essex Street and Broadway.

"When I was a kid they were all over the place," said Jack McCarthy, owner of Van Otis Candies at 468 Andover St. That shop and truffle-manufacturing operation is shutting down the week after Mother's Day and reopening in North Andover in September, while Priscilla's is shutting down the week after Easter, which falls this year on April 24.

"For whatever reason, downtown has deteriorated and just can't keep up," said McCarthy. "Priscilla's will be the last one to leave — most of the people and businesses that were around when Priscilla's started are all long gone. It's too bad. They had a great product and are a great family."

 

Took business over from parents

This week, Harriet and Norman toured their three-story Essex Street building, showing off some of the "modern" improvements they made over the years after taking over the business from Harriet's mother and father, Archie and Sylvia Diamond, in 1953.

The first floor is the retail operation; second floor is storage; while the third floor houses the manufacturing operation, complete with ovens, mixers and an assembly-line style piece of machinery.

A similar assembly-line is depicted in a large picture on the factory wall of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz making candy in one of the more celebrated episodes of the "I Love Lucy" TV series.

But the business isn't all fun and games, say the Coopers.

It's very hard work.

"We used to carry 100-pound bags of sugar up three flights of stairs," said John Costanzo, 61, a candy maker who has worked with the Coopers for many years but who is also ready to retire. He is one of six people who work there.

Five years ago, the Coopers installed a lift that hoists 500 pounds of supplies from the parking lot to the third-story manufacturing floor.

But the work goes beyond back-breaking labor.

"We were here 7 days a week, holidays, weekends, and it was mostly my husband and I who were here," said Harriet.

Working with Costanzo and other family members, the business was in demand during holidays when everyone else was at home, celebrating.

Their biggest holiday is Easter, followed by Christmas, then Valentine's Day and Mother's Day.

Their only real time off was the summer, when they would take 6 weeks vacation.

Candy-making a dying profession

Making matters worse is that it's hard to find anyone who knows how to make candy. Much of the knowledge was passed down from the Diamonds to the Coopers.

Every step of the process requires patience, a deft touch and a detailed understanding of the machinery involved.

"We make it the way my dad taught us," she said. "It's very labor-intensive."

That's why smaller candy-manufacturing operations tend to be handed down from one generation to the next. Jack McCarthy, of Van Otis Candies, has more or less handed off the business to his daughters, who now specialize in making truffles.

Bob Burkinshaw, 60, was the third generation of his family to run Ye Olde Pepper Co., which continues manufacturing its product in Lawrence, but has retail outlets in Salem, Mass., and North Andover. The fourth generation is now taking over — his son is 36, his daughter, 34.

"We're a family business," said Burkinshaw, who purchased Silver Sweet Candy, which had a retail store in Lawrence for many years, but which has also closed.

Noted Harriet Cooper: "You can't just put an ad in paper for a candy maker. They are just not available."

That said, if somebody with experience wants to buy the business and the building it's in, it's all for sale, said Norman Cooper.

Priscilla's was a family business from its start in the late 1920s. Priscilla Candies started out as a candy counter across the street at Puritan Restaurant. Following the Puritan theme, it was named for Priscilla Alden, wife of the first Pilgrim to step off the Mayflower onto Plymouth Rock.

Eventually, according to an oral history done by Harriet Cooper at the Lawrence History Center, the candy counter outgrew the restaurant.

Puritan owners John, James and Louis Gaglis sold Priscilla's Candies to the Diamonds in 1928. They moved the manufacturing and retail operation to the building now occupied by TD Bank at the corner of Essex and Hampshire streets, where the operation remained for about 50 years.

When the building at 428 Essex St. became available, the Coopers decided to purchase it and move there in 1979. In 1986, another Priscilla's opened in Londonderry, but eventually moved to Derry.

"We've seen a lot and times have changed," Harriet Cooper said. "But our chocolate still tastes the same. Now, I've got other things I want to do. Even though it's been a good business for us, and we've made a living, it's time to move on."

Her daugher, Rhonda, agreed.

"I've been doing this for 25 years," she said. "I've seen a lot of changes. Running a business is difficult today. It's more complex. I'm in a good place now. And I don't want to be doing this for the next 25 years."

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