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Down Avenue A, across from Tompkins Square Park, several storefronts sit empty where successful small businesses recently buzzed with life. Café Pick Me Up, Dusty Buttons, Sustainable NYC and Alphabets were all beloved stores in buildings whose owners have chosen to pursue something other than perpetuating this thriving ecosystem. Now the windows are blank and the only signs read “For Rent.”
Then a lantern flares in the darkness.
The glowing sign outside showing three soft-focus soft-serv cones—strawberry, chocolate, and vanilla—is a beacon in the night!
Ray’s Candy Store appears at No. 113, just above 7th Street.
It’s a cornerstone of the neighborhood, an anchor in an ever-changing environment. It’s been here for years, providing the little things that make a neighborhood livable – a coffee on the way to work, an ice cream on the way to the park, fries late on a weekend night. It’s a meeting place, a friendly greeting, a reminder that NYC is not as cold and heartless as it sometimes feels. It’s a city built of people like Ray, making a living and making the ’hood livable on a daily basis.
At 82-and-a-half years old, Ray has been running the store for half his life. Longevity is hardly the only reason that he received a record-setting 34 nominations for “Business of the Month,” however. Each italicized paragraph in this article is a quote from a different fan:
Ray’s is the place you go after you’ve had both a bad night and a great night. I wandered in one night intrigued by the large “Belgium fries” sign and never looked back. Anyone who has been hungry around Tompkins Square Park has been here. The decor is unpretentious and the food is honest and delicious. It is a true staple of the East Village, and it is a testament to what the neighborhood was, and continues to be, about.
Forty-one years ago, an Iranian immigrant named Asghar Ghahraman was looking for a restaurant to buy, when a friend told him about a candy store for sale. “Ray” grabbed the spot and built it into the fried-and-sweet destination it is today. There’s no candy on display, though.
“I ate most of it,” says Ray, not missing a beat. Indeed, he’s helping himself to a chocolate soft-serve that a young woman just bought through the window, then inexplicably gave back. Ray shrugs and enjoys it. He may seem unassuming, but has plenty to say. He talks a bit about growing up in Tabriz, his service in the Imperial Iranian Navy, and being homeless for a spell. (He’s lived around the corner on 7th Street for decades now.)
Then he gets caught up in the general chatter. A Richie, who introduces himself as the “mayor of the East Village,” and Mani kibitz between bites of a hot dog and fries, respectively. People come here to kibitz. They come with light hearts, seeking welcome.
Ray is such a sweet soul who provides warmth, GREAT food, old-school charm and great value. He and his staff are wonderful any hour of the day. An INSTITUTION OF THE EAST VILLAGE is an understatement.
Ray is loved as a man and a neighbor.
The affection for this place, the food and the staff crosses generation and geography:
The best egg cream, chill dogs, fries with cheese, and the pistachio ice cream. Ray is a great guy and funny as hell. Been bringing my kids here for 40 years. My grandkids come from Florida – first stop off the plane is Ray’s for an egg cream. Now my great- grandkids do the same. I’m Ray’s first grandma!! And he remembers all of them.
Ray’s has been a part of my life, my mother’s life before me and is now a part of my daughter’s life as well! Three generations of egg cream summer memories.
After 40 years, he is still working the extra-late shift at his 24-hour store, giving the easier day shifts to other staff. The rest of the staff is always kind and courteous, and have a great sense of humor. Ray and his staff provide exemplary service and are just genuinely kind people.
Practically all of the praise carries with it an acknowledgement that Ray’s Candy Store is a rare and valuable thing. People crave what it offers and want more individuality, warmth and interaction. Policymakers and landlords, listen:
Ray knows his customers and they treat him like family. The sort of connection, once common, that is increasingly rare in Manhattan.
It’s a shame how quickly businesses like Ray’s have become a memory. Ray is a hardworking, local business owner that reminds me why I moved to New York in the first place.
It’s a part of the cultural fabric of this city.
Ray has weathered rent problems and health problems to keep his business open. He says he’s feeling okay – planning to work the overnight shifts this weekend as usual – and doing okay with the landlord too, on a year-to-year lease. Let’s hope his beacon keeps blazing, because clearly, we need him.
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CORRECTION: The Upper Rust at 445 E. 9th Street remains open. (This article had incorrectly said it was closed.) Asked how the community can help, owner Kevin said to come and buy things.