Ray’s Candy Store, a tiny store at Tompkins Square Park has seen it all over the last 44 years, and so has its beloved owner, Ray Alvarez
Ray Alvarez is the owner of Ray’s Candy Store at 113 Avenue A in the East Village across from Tompkins Square Park. Ray’s story is part fantasy, part miracle and part self-determination. He, literally, had to swim for his life.
Born in Iran, Ray joined the Iranian navy as a young man, even while keeping alive his dream of coming to America. No problem! While on a naval ship one night off the coast of Virginia, the guards looked the other way and Ray jumped into the ocean and swam half a mile to shore. He took a train to Florida, where he worked for years, then took a train to New York, where he worked for years until he was able to purchase his candy store in 1974, for $33,000—all the money he had saved. And, ever since then, the 85-year-old Ray has been working sixteen-hour days. He’s renowned. He’s the Candy Man.
There’s just one thing: Ray sells no candy. You can buy fried Oreos, fried bananas, fried apple rings, Belgian fries, egg creams, beignets, hotdogs, ice cream and other junk food delicacies. But you cannot buy candy. When I recently visited the store, I thought I’d landed on Coney Island’s boardwalk. Posted on the walls on one side are old posters of foods for sale; on the other wall are articles about Ray. The store is about 30 feet long and about 7 feet wide. Sorry, no seats. It’s legendary and Ray is an iconic symbol, present and past, an extraordinarily unique person who dishes out love and stories. This is why you visit Ray’s Candy store.
I was recently in the store with three people and couldn’t move, but I could feel. I felt like I was walking into a historic time machine. I spoke to Stella, an employee since 1977, and became dizzy with happiness. You visit Ray’s to feel, not to eat, though you certainly would want to patronize the store. It is touched by magic. The old and the new blend together like a sundae with a cherry on top. Nostalgia becomes reality.
In the 1970s and 80s, the neighborhood was troubled, to say the least, with gangs, guns, drugs, prostitutes, rapes and other bad vibes. On the evening of August 6, 1988, the Tompkins Square Park riots broke out between police and a group of protesters rallying against a curfew at the park. Ray kept his store open because many of the protesters were his customers. And the artists, musicians and celebrities were his customers as well. You get the feeling Ray exudes love and no one is left out.
Ray’s Candy Store is less than a mile from CBGBs, so you never knew who would pop in for some love and ice cream. “Tompkins Square Park is the place where Agnostic Front, the Beastie Boys, Death Before Dishonor, Antidote, Murphy’s Law, the Psychos, the Abused, Cause For Alarm, the Undead, Heart Attack and a few other bands were always hanging out between shows in the early 80s,” according to the Hardcore-Lover’s guide. Anthony Bourdain and Harley Flanagan, founding member of the band Cro-Mags, visited the store while Bourdain drank some egg cream and compiled information for a story about the East Village.
Ray’s store has been featured in several movies like What About Me, Die Hard With a Vengeance, HBO’s How to Make It in America, and who could forget the Vice Media documentary web series Fuck, that’s Delicious with rapper and chef Action Bronson.
In 2010, Ray was in trouble, painfully big trouble. He received an eviction notice. During the winter, business was bad. Ray was dead broke and couldn’t pay the rent. It was over, kaput, finished. It could have killed this man, losing his love, everything he dreamed, his existence, his meaning in life. It was a death notice. When people and friends of the store found out about the eviction, they donated money to Ray, including holding a concert where the proceeds went to Ray. Not only did Ray pay the back rent, he purchased a new freezer and ice cream machine. Love! And the birthday parties for the Man were spectacular with the media and people jammed into the store, burlesque dancers on the counter paying tribute to the Man!
Yes, Ray can make the sun rise, “cause he mixes it with love and makes the world taste good. He can take tomorrow and dip it in a dream, separate the sorrow and collect up all the cream. The Candy Man makes everything he bakes satisfying and delicious. Now you talk about your childhood wishes. You can even eat the dishes. Cause he mixes it with love and makes the world taste good,” Candy Man Can by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. “The Candy Man” is and was number 1 in America.
If you are down and troubled, visit Ray for a fix. He works from 5 p.m. through the morning. I guarantee you that, for one brief shining moment, you’ll walk away happy. Guaranteed or the fried Oreos and ice cream are on me.