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In Melrose, their sweets tradition rules

Vita Bugden presiding over her domain at Melrose’s Candy Castle. Vita Bugden presiding over her domain at Melrose’s Candy Castle. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Kathy Shiels Tully
Globe Correspondent / May 6, 2010

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Looking for the fountain of youth? Walk through the door of the Candy Castle in Melrose and step back in time to candy stores of the past. Your inner child will thank you.

This month, Vita and Tom Bugden of Medford celebrate 25 years as owners of the sweet-treat emporium where generations of kids have burst through the door of the narrow storefront, painted light green with a green-striped awning, sandwiched between Ernie’s Lunch and U Dance Academy on Franklin Street.

Inside, long wooden shelves line the wall on the left, with colorful boxes of assorted candies tempting visitors of all ages. On the right, a glass-encased display holds a selection of Winfrey’s chocolates and fudge, alongside an array of baseball cards for collectors, ranging from a few dollars to $40 for a Nolan Ryan card. There’s also slush, ice cream bars, soda, and gift baskets that can be made to order. No cigarettes, lottery tickets, or newspapers.

The young patrons know the drill: pick out the candy, and drop it into a small green plastic tray. That’s half the fun. A course in calculation comes when customers, both tall and small, add up their bounty, which starts at 3 cents. Vita Bugden stands patiently while younger customers methodically tally their stash at the register.

Started by a Melrose junior high school teacher more than 30 years ago, the Candy Castle was run by a second owner for seven or eight years. About that time, Tom Bugden was laid off and out of work for a year. Vita, a nurse, suggested he try running a small business. “This suddenly became available,’’ she said.

When Tom found full-time employment, Vita left nursing to work at the Candy Castle while raising their children. No surprise, since candy careers run in her family.

“My mother worked at Lewis’s in Malden, long gone now, and Necco’s and Schrafft’s when they were in Somerville,’’ Vita said. “My aunt also worked in Necco for many, many years as a hand-dipper. We had candy around the house all the time.

“My mother used to love to come here and help. Kids loved her and called her ‘the Slush Lady.’

Since 1985, the store’s been open seven days a week (except for the Bugdens’ annual two-week vacation in January). Fashion and music might change, but not a kid’s sweet tooth.

“A lot of old-time candy is still popular,’’ said Vita, “like Squirrel Nuts, candy buttons on the long paper strip, Sky Bars, Charlestown Chews, Mary Janes, but sour is in — it’s really popular, things like Cry Babies, Warheads, and Straws.’’ She grimaced. “Oh, they’re awful, but the kids love them. The sourer the better.’’

As for adults? “Just as many come in as kids. Chocolate and fudge are popular.’’

Clearly, the Bugdens are not gouging their customers. “I always tell parents it’s good for the kids to be limited to $1 to $2. Setting a limit is good. . . We try to keep the prices down. If a kid with small change can buy something, I think that’s great.’’

One elementary school class from Stoneham used the store to create a tasty math field trip. “If you had 50 cents to spend at the Candy Castle, what would you buy?’’ the class was asked before students entered to see what they could get for their money.

Over the decades, business had been predictable, the Bugdens said, until becoming really slow this winter. Tom, not one to give up, cut back on everything. The strategy paid off.

If Candy Castle’s recent foot traffic is any economic indicator, spring and summer look to be picking up.

Vita’s warm brown eyes crinkle as she recounts more favorite memories. “Kids borrow from each other constantly. They’ll say to a friend, ’Can you lend me $1 and I’ll pay you back tomorrow?’ I watch them.’’

Some kids expect to see a queen or king inside because of the store’s name.

“One little girl called me Queen Frostine,’’ Vita said.

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