ON A RECENT VISIT to the Sweet Life, a tiny Lower East Side candy shop hidden away on the corner of Ludlow and Hester Sts., I found one of the longtime proprietors, Terry McIlvaine, positioned at her usual spot. She stands behind the counter by the register and scales, all but hidden by an absurdly well-stocked glass display case that beckons from the back of the store.
The case holds an array of old-fashioned hand-dipped chocolates like cashew clusters, dipped glazed fruits, chocolate-covered graham crackers, hand-dipped caramels and the popular softie pop: two chocolate-dipped marshmallows lanced on a bamboo skewer. All are made in the store. This is the reason why the entire shop-a 250-square-foot boite that can be crossed in 20 paces tops-smells deeply of fruity, hot, melted chocolate, possibly the most disarming scent on Earth.
McIlvaine, a tall woman with fair skin and chin-length auburn hair, is measuring out black Dutch licorice cats into one-pound bags.
"You know, it's so ironic that you're here today, because today Martha is going to jail and I'm just filling my last order for her catalog," she says.
Martha Stewart is perhaps the most famous of the Sweet Life's many industry champions. Her mailorder magazine, Catalogue for Living, has been ordering goodies from the Sweet Life packaged with the Martha Stewart label. Malted milk ball speckled eggs at Easter, champagne gumdrops for weddings, these are just some of the candies here that Martha Stewart had to have.
"They're not going to do the catalog anymore," says McIlvaine, a woman with just the right mixture of deadpan and wit to make her genuinely quirky. "We got a letter. A 'Dear Sweet Life' letter."
The Sweet Life has been run by McIlvaine and her husband Jerry McCarthy (yes, Terry and Jerry), since the two met in 1984. Before then, McCarthy, a stern-looking Santa type with whitish hair and beard, spent two years on his own; he originated the shop in 1982. Last year, McCarthy and McIlvaine sold their store to Sam Greenfield and his sister Diane Schwartzberg. The former owners are facilitating a slow handover, training Greenfield and Schwartzberg in the demanding day-to-day routine, particularly through the upcoming holiday season when the inventory in this already-packed store doubles.
"There's no elegant way to say it," says McCarthy. "I've had enough of retail, I guess."
Although McIlvaine and McCarthy no longer own the store, they still go on with business as usual, especially today when the new owners are out. Any visitor can tell you that McIlvaine is constantly engaged in busywork. (She also has a charming habit of handing out samples of whichever sweet you may be eyeing.) At any given moment she is opening up boxes of new deliveries, refilling buckets of dried fruit, restocking bins of hard candies and jelly beans, divvying assorted gummies into individual bags, straightening the selection of imported chocolate bars. McCarthy's a perfectionist, and throughout our interview manages to answer questions and have one eye on McIlvaine as she tidies the store.
"You're pulling back too much there," says McCarthy as McIlvaine adjusts candy trays.
Sweet Life has a legion of devoted customers, several from out of state and out of the country, but has been largely overlooked by locals. McCarthy, who was among the first to introduce many specialty items to the Lower East Side with the opening of this shop, such as Scharffen Berger chocolate in the 90s, and Jelly Belly jelly beans and gummy bears and gourmet coffee in the 80s, is accustomed to the underdog status.
McCarthy, a longtime neighborhood resident, acquired the store through an odd turn of events. "This store used to sell fruits and vegetables and a little candy for years. It closed down for about a year, and there was nothing in here," he recalls. "It was a very dilapidated place, but it had some jars like this in the windows, some empty jars they were getting rid of," says McCarthy, tapping on a tall, thick-walled jar holding pistachio nuts. "I thought I'd buy some jars, to put in the pantry or hold pasta or something. He gave me a price for the jars that was a little high. I said 'Maybe I'll get them, I'll think about it.'"
Within the next hour, McCarthy ended up buying the lease to the store. "It was inexplicable. I was looking for some kind of business to do, and I didn't really know any business. So I bought the store. Instead of buying the jars I bought the whole place."
McCarthy renovated for two years. The weekend before he was set to stock the shelves, a hot water pipe broke and sprayed water and steam for two straight days. It destroyed the entire renovation, and the insurance was set to kick in just a few days later. So McCarthy started over again. "The second time took just a few months," he said. They opened during Passover, 1982.
McCarthy's shop has grown from a small place nicely stocked with coffee, dried fruit, candy and nuts to a store crammed with an idiosyncratic assortment of domestic, imported, run-of-the-mill and hard-to-find candies. Floor to ceiling, every inch of space that can be used for storage and display is (and if it isn't, it will be). By necessity, McCarthy devised creative, pre-Ikea methods to maximize his space. This has resulted in a dizzying, multi-layered effect. Everywhere you look, there are treats-on shelves that line the walls, in boxes on the floor, stacked on top of one another, tucked over, behind and underneath.
A table in the center of the room bolsters more than a dozen oversized jars and bowls filled with trail mixes, chocolate chunks, and lots of nuts-salted, unsalted, roasted, pralined. Under the table are two more shelves stocked with malt balls, fruit rolls, gum drops and more, as well as small packets of gummies costing around a dollar that McIlvaine makes especially for neighborhood kids who regularly make a beeline to this somewhat obscure spot. ("They have two dollars to spend, so we don't just pack big bags," she says.)
The Sweet Life carries goods from at least 20 different countries, many of which McCarthy ferreted out on trips to Europe, Asia and Central and South America. With this kind of variety and this little space, the store has the appearance of a constantly evolving, increasingly complex masterwork. With the stacks, Halvah sits beside Pennsylvanian fudge and precious wrapped candies from Turin. Swirly lollipops are next to bottles of sassafras tea and kosher jelly rings.
In March, McIlvaine and McCarthy will be officially free of the business, which they single- handedly ran for more than a decade. "When we started we were only going to do it for a couple of years," says McIlvaine. Now that the time is up, McIlvaine isn't quite sure what comes next. "The thing you miss doing is what you do every day, and now I think, what do you do now?"
Although the couple is uncertain of what they will do once the handover is complete, they are thinking of travel. "For years we had to do everything separately because someone had to stay and watch the store," McIlvaine says.
"Every time we go anywhere we always look for candy shops," says McCarthy. "It's a hard habit to break. I don't think we ever will."