LAWRENCE - Up the faded wooden stairway from the barred windows and empty storefronts of Essex Street, two men and a woman in white smocks labored in an aged workshop to forge the brittle fruit of their time-honored trade.
John Costanzo pulled and tugged, his wiry frame tense. Norman Cooper kneaded, the muscles in his broad back straining. Rhonda Freitas fashioned the finished product into the proper shape. "You got to be strong," Costanzo said, wiping his forehead with thick work gloves.
And then the job was complete: a batch of red-and-white striped candy canes, each of them 2 or 3 feet long.
This is Priscilla Candies, a mom-and-pop shop that is a bastion of the all-but- forgotten skill of handcrafting candy canes, the quintessentially sweet symbols of Yuletide that play three roles in Christmas celebrations: tree ornament, Christian symbol, and sticky-swirly peppermint treat.
The candy shop on the first floor does a bang-up business selling homemade hard candy and chocolates. In a city particularly hard hit by foreclosures and unemployment, Priscilla has proved to be the rare small business thriving in the tumultuous Christmas season of 2008. At a time of mass production and commercial homogeneity, Priscilla makes good by staying simple and small.
Nothing epitomizes Priscilla's tenacious grasp on tradition quite like Cooper's annual batch of super-size candy canes.
"This is a dying art," Cooper said as he watched Costanzo pull the taffy-like mixture of sugar and boiled corn syrup into the raw candy that would become his next harvest of cane. "Not too many people know how to do it anymore."
It's hard work, but these folks are not complaining.
"I don't really consider it work. I enjoy doing it," said Cooper, 63, who has been wrestling sugar and corn syrup into candy cane for 40 years. "A lot of people hate getting up and going to work each morning. I don't."
To say that candy runs in the Cooper family is like saying the Kennedys like politics; it's a marked understatement. Cooper's wife, Harriet, 62, who runs the shop on the first floor, has been working at Priscilla since she was 13. She inherited the store from her father, Achilles "Archie" Diamond, who purchased the store and candy factory in 1952 after working as chief candy maker for the previous owners. Freitas, 39, the Coopers' daughter, has been at the shop since she was a 16-year-old kid in the candy store of life.
"You either love this job or you hate it," said Costanzo, 59, who has worked there for 40 years, the only one of the four full-timers not in the family.
The shop, founded in 1928 and named by the original owners after Priscilla Alden, the first lady of the Mayflower, makes few concessions to modernity. Under white- and yellow-checked wallpaper, display cases dazzle with homemade chocolate-dipped cherries, truffles, almond bark, penuche, cashew patties, white chocolate, and other delights. One departure from tradition: orange and cherry-flavored candy cane, "for the kids," Harriet Cooper says. So decked out is the store in Christmas trinkets and colorful candies, it would thrive on Main Street in the North Pole.
The store, one of a handful in New England to handcraft candy cane, has a loyal clientele. Pete Gallo, 76, of Methuen has been coming here for 40 years. He says his 5-year-old granddaughter is able to tell the difference between Priscilla candy and anyone else's. Steve Scheffen, a 45-year-old Lawrence police lieutenant, is considered a "new customer": He's been buying here 20 years.
The appeal of candy seems eternal. Priscilla Candies survived the low-carb craze, Harriet Cooper said, and it'll make it through the recession.
"Even during the Depression candy did well," she quipped. "Candy and booze are recession-proof!"
Flavor is part of the appeal of vintage candy cane. So is the size that Cooper fashions at Priscilla.
Urban Living Studio, a fashionable boutique in Boston's South End, purchased about 90 of Cooper's 2-foot-long canes this year. "No one can beat the size," said Jillian Mier, a sales associate there. Urban Living charges $12 for the canes, a bit of a markup from the $4.50 they cost in Priscilla Candies' Lawrence shop.
"If I were in Boston, I'd charge that, too," said Harriet Cooper.
Priscilla had sold out its large canes, so Norman Cooper yesterday whipped up a new batch. But first he explained the legend of its religious significance.
"The white stands for the purity of Jesus, the red represents the blood he shed on the cross. Three small stripes are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost," he said in the workshop, strewn with decades-old equipment and bags of sugar. "The shape is the shepherd staff, and when you turn it upside down, it's a J for Jesus."
Cooper and Costanzo poured the boiling syrup-sugar mixture from a copper kettle onto a steel table, where they pressed and folded it until it had the consistency of thick cellophane. Costanzo pulled the candy by hand on an iron hook, stretching and aerating the mixture.
Then Cooper mixed in peppermint oil - an ounce of which clears the sinuses and brings tears to the eyes, but also gives the cane its authentic taste - and "Bright Crimson Red Paste" for coloring. People often ask him for the recipe, Cooper said, but "it's all in the labor and knowing when things are ready."
"It's my favorite thing to make," Cooper said when the batch was done.
Much as he loves his life, Cooper said the day will come when he'll look for a successor. The remark drew a collective groan from the candy cane lifers.
"He keeps threatening to retire," Costanzo said. "I won't let him."