by Len Lear
It is a dream that millions of children dream about at some point: owning your very own candy store. Well, Andorra resident Paula Fingerut may be 58, but she still gets excited every morning when she opens Zipf’s Candy Store, a Chestnut Hill landmark that was started 50 years ago by Muriel Kaplan in the courtyard and walkway between 8433 and 8435 Germantown Ave.
“People think about their childhood when they come in here,” said Fingerut last week. “To see how happy they are when they come in here is so great. I love food and working with it and talking about it. As long as it is fun, I enjoy coming in here every day, and it has definitely been a lot of fun. People say, ‘I’m so glad you took it over.’ It’s not always just about the money. You do need to pay the bills, but it’s a great thing when you can also love your work!”
From 1968 to 2008, Zipf’s was run by Muriel Levin Kaplan, whose husband, Marvin, opened The Pipe Rack right next door in 1965, which is also still there. (The name Zipf’s, by the way, was used because it was already a well known name in chocolates. In the early days Muriel’s chocolates all came from Zipf’s candy factory in Reading, which was founded in 1905.) Alena Hackett bought it in 2008 from Kaplan, who died in 2012. “I came out of retirement and bought it from Alena this year and took over June 1,” said Fingerut. “I was really just looking for something to do a couple hours a week, but it turned out to be quite a bit more than that. A friend at Delphine Gallery told me about this place, so I negotiated with Alena. I just couldn’t pass it up, and I’m happy I bought it.”
I spent a few hours with Fingerut last week in the store, and it is easy to see why she is as happy as the proverbial “kid in a candy store.” Two different customers, who both appeared to be in their 50s, mentioned that they bought candy at Zipf’s as children growing up in Chestnut Hill and that the store brought back “wonderful memories.”
“Something about the store is so great,” said one customer. “The smell of all the chocolate, for one thing. It makes you feel like a kid again. It’s great that this place is still here.” Another woman came in and asked, “Do you have white chocolate with almonds?” After looking wide-eyed at the merchandise as if she were in a jewelry store, she said “I want this and this and this and this” and wound up buying $36 worth of sweets. (And there was not a dentist or cardiologist in sight.)
Four teenage boys whose eyes were bigger than their wallets came in. “How much is one piece of peppermint bark?” said the shortest one who seemed to have the biggest personality. “We have to catch a train.”
“There is a lot of stress and b.s. in any business,” said Fingerut, “but this business spreads joy. In this day and age we really need that.”
Fingerut grew up in Northeast Philly and attended the Parkway High School in center city. She then worked at Ashbourne Food Market in Elkins Park, starting as a cashier and learning all aspects of the grocery business. In her early 20s she was made manager of Ashbourne Two, a gourmet shop that opened around the corner from the original food market. She worked there for 13 years and then bought a lunch truck that was parked at 17th and Spring Garden Streets, generally feeding students at Community College of Philadelphia.
“My partner and I made sandwiches, burgers, cheesesteaks, sold candy, etc., but after two years we got tired of it. It was fun, but there was not enough income for two people.”
Fingerut then moved to Kennebunk, Maine, where she had friends, for a change of scenery. While there with her cockatoo, Kasha, who lived to be 21, she became a produce manager for a supermarket in the Hannaford chain. (She had three other dogs at the same time: Pepper, a cockatoo; Cocoa, a Heinz 57, and Peanut Butter & Jelly, a cocker spaniel). Every year she moved to a different store in the chain, but after 20 years in Maine, she moved back here in 2009 to take care of her mom in the Northeast, who died at the beginning of this year at age 93.
The Food Lion company, which owned Hannaford, opened a Bottom Dollar in Bensalem, where Fingerut became an assistant store manager, later moving to another Bottom Dollar in Willow Grove.
“I am glad I came back to Philly,” said Fingerut, who was never married and has no children. “I got to spend a lot of time with my mom over eight years. Bottom Dollar was bought out by Aldi in 2012, and I retired.” (The retirement was also prompted by some medical issues, but she has made a full recovery.)
“Inventory is my forte,” said Fingerut. “I’m good with numbers. I like jigsaw puzzles, and putting all of this merchandise together is a puzzle. I won merchandising awards. I love merchandising. I took out a lot of glass covers here, so now you can reach out and touch the candy. That is important. The store’s best sellers are bulk chocolate and licorice. The New York Times recently had a six-page spread on the resurgence in licorice.
“I have no expectations for Christmas, so I will not be disappointed, no matter what, but we did great on Wizard weekend. The place was packed. It was so nice to see people having so much fun. It was just as good as any of the Harry Potter years. I used to chase the money but no more. A health scare will do that to you. It’s not worth it. The community is really supporting the store, and Isabella Sparrow did a great job fixing up the courtyard here.”
Fingerut said she has two basic rules in business: “Never assume” and “The 6 P’s — proper planning prevents pretty poor performance!”
Zipf’s is open every day but Monday. There is no website or email address yet, but they are on Paula’s to-do list.