The next time a fistful of coins rattle around your pocket or bulge your change purse, think about the time when quarters, Liberty dimes, buffalo-head nickels and even Lincoln pennies bought tiny treasures. Recall an age when corner newsstands with fold-open shutters, cubbyhole shops barely wider than a walk-in closet and even temporary Catskills canteens seemed like Technicolor candy stores.

And the choices—such tough choices for a kid to make: Something with enough pieces to last a while? A comic or magazine to savor all week and then trade or add to the bedside pile? A sweet treat as much fun to look at as to chew? A pack of Topps cards that might hold a rarity with real value? (If only we had saved them for the eBay era . . .)

These allowance-spending choices straddled the switch from school year to summer, when canteen accounts provided a stake for pint-sized patrons at impromptu camp stores, bungalow colony canteens, roller rink or bowling alley counters and drugstores in town.

At Stern Summer Camp in Pine Bush, N.Y., we could drop nickels and dimes into a red, rounded-top vending machine with a script Coca-Cola signature on our dining room porch. Lying on their sides in a vertical stack behind a glass door were frosty bottles of Crush, Coke and Yoo-Hoo—a classic chocolate beverage with Yogi Bera’s smiling face silk-screened right onto the clear glass.

In a playroom nearby was our canteen, a metal storage cabinet with a Master lock on the latch. On two or three evenings each week, a counselor swung open the doors to reveal a collection of basic adolescent survival essentials—instead of the tools, office supplies or auto parts usually stashed in such sheet metal units.

Coin-clutching campers were dazzled by colorful rows of familiar boxes, bags and wrappers—a private store that seemed to be miniaturized and transported from a neighborhood corner back home. True, there was no swiveling rack with Archie, Batman, Superman, Mad, Cracked, 16 and other vital periodicals. But there were boxes of Good ‘N Plenty, Twizzlers, Bazooka singles and logs, Mary Janes, Tootsie Rolls, Kit Kat bars, Pez and Chuckles.

Enough, in other words, to satisfy minimum post-dinner cravings. But for true gluttony, an expedition beyond our Sheldon Road driveway was necessary.

Under the guise of taking an afternoon stroll for fresh air and exercise—a mission guaranteed to win approval from camp directors and senior counselors whose European culture embraced mountain “cures” for everything from malaise to tuberculosis—we’d amble about two miles to a cabin cluster called Vienna Rest. No, the tenants didn’t wear lederhosen (though some probably had at one time), but the proprietors did have a garage emporium stocked with frozen Milky Ways and Snickers, more varieties of bottles than at camp (grape, root beer, cream soda and similar exotica) and enough creamsicles, fudgesicles and popsicles to stain all our lips and tongues.

Dispensers that were ordinary back then in the ’50s and ’60s now decorate our memories like the quaint museum pieces that they are:

  • Rectangular floor coolers you leaned into to snatch out a dripping bottle before snapping off the cap on the side-mounted opener.
  • A surplus kitchen fridge with a circular condenser on top than hummed as if to attract the hungry.
  • A wood-trimmed cabinet with a beveled-glass top that was a visible vault of Reese’s, Payday, Planter’s honey-nut bars, Mallo-Cups, Necco Wafers, Peter Paul Almond Joy, Nestle’s Crunch, Chiclets, Chocolate Babies, Bit o’Honey, Red Hots, Raisinettes, Tootsie-Roll pops, Clark bars and Sugar Daddies.

An even broader selection awaited us at weekly or biweekly outings to lace up rental skates at Tilson Lake’s barn-like rink, to put on bowling shoes at lanes in Pine Bush and to see a movie in Ellenville, followed by a belly-filling and bag-filling stop at a drug store with a soda fountain.

These higher-volume storehouses went beyond boxes and bags with season-long shelf lives. Like corner stores back home, they had loose penny candy for every taste—nonpareils, peanut butter fingers, honeycomb candies, malted milk balls, jaw-breakers, wax “juice” bottles, jelly crescents and rings, circus peanuts, Kraft caramels (dark and light), root beer barrels, coconut marshmallow squares, tall straws with flavored powder, black licorice records with red-dot centers, peppermint “cigarettes,” lemon drops, hard Turkish taffy slabs in vanilla, banana, chocolate and strawberry flavors, black or red licorice strings and pretzel sticks plucked from a countertop cylinder. And who can’t picture those pastel sugar dots on paper strips, resembling a Braille adding machine tape that was colorful and edible.

These bright arrays brought instant bliss, and had a special allure because they were different from the fussy, fancy treats our parents bought—candied fruits, coconut and chocolate macaroons, jellied raspberries and blackberries, triangular Toblerone bars and Barton’s or Fanny Farmer chocolates in prissy paper collars. We reveled in the freedom of grabbing our own choices, less formal, less costly and begging to be swallowed or chewed on the spot.

July afternoon shopping stops weren’t all about sweets and sodas. There were other rewards to reap, such as a fresh Sporting News, an Alfred Hitchcock Presents magazine of mystery stories, cork-like “punks” on a stick for lil’ nonsmokers who wanted to act cool or light firecrackers and sparklers without using up a matchbook, and wax lips, fangs or buck teeth for the eternally juvenile. Supplemental luxuries included packages of potato chips, potato sticks and onion rings—plus half-moons and jelly doughnuts if a bakery stop rounded out the itinerary.

Suddenly, our boroughs didn’t seem so far away.

Back when spending a pocket full of change involved important choices—black or red licorice, ice cream or Italian ice, a Spaldeen or a couple of comics—who could have foreseen a time when “nickel and dime” would be said dismissively? Surely not those of us who hoarded coins for simple pleasures with lasting value in the memory bank.

Our earliest experiences as independent consumers were so eye-opening that adults still speak wistfully of feeling “like a kid in a candy store” whenever choices are appealing and ample.

And during those sweet summer days we spent as campers and counselors, our Catskills world seemed like a candy store indeed.