The End of an Era: Thanks for the Memories Rye Smoke Shop
For this month's Rye Story, we are highlighting the importance of shopping local by honoring the memory of an iconic Rye business. On the eve of our annual Sidewalk Sale, we bring you the history of the Smoke Shop, written by Gretchen Snyder for the Rye Record.
Please come shop July 25-27 at the Sidewalk Sale. Our museum will be open and air conditioned, and we have stroller parking outside.
Despite numerous attempts by Rye residents, and the City Council, to save the beloved mom-and-pop shop, the Rye Smoke Shop closed its doors on March 31, 2016 after almost 70 years in business. Residents are clearly disheartened by the impending loss of a legendary shop in town, and saddened by what many feel is the last evidence of yesteryear.
But the sad news also inspired many to share joyful memories of the Smoke Shop and its owners during their childhood in Rye.
One of my fondest memories is my daily pit stop at the Smoke Shop on my journey home from Midland School to Indian Village. My parents gave me a weekly allowance that, much to their dismay, was spent almost entirely on candy. A chocoholic as a kid, I just couldn’t fathom the rest of my walk home without that Snickers Bar or Tootsie Roll pick me up. Like many kids, I blew through my weekly allowance by Wednesday or Thursday, but thankfully, Tony and Peggy always understood my need to refuel for the last leg of my trip. They set up a “charge account” scribbled on a piece of paper taped behind the counter (trust me, I was not the only name on that list) and sent me on my way with a Snickers Bar on credit.
On Monday afternoons, I would stop in to pay them back with my new weekly allowance. After my account was cleared, I would pay for my daily candy bar, and Peggy would give me a big smile and a wink, knowing full well I would be back in the red again by mid-week.
Jay Altmeyer, who also grew up in Rye, fondly remembers the ever-popular charge account behind the counter. In fact, his dear friend, Ward Haynes, another longtime Rye resident who lost his life on 9/11, charged a piece of candy (bubblegum, recalls Peggy) many, many years ago, and Ward’s 5 cent charge is still hanging behind the counter to this day. Altmeyer said he has tried numerous times over the years to pay off his old buddy’s bubblegum debt, yet Peggy steadfastly refuses to accept a nickel, choosing to preserve a wonderful memory frozen in time.
The “charge account” was also at the forefront of Laurie Pinkham Ballantoni’s mind: “I loved that Tony and Peggy kept a running tab behind the counter and you could owe them money on those days that you didn’t have enough on you. I always paid my tab quickly because I really cared that they trusted me enough to do that – and I never wanted them to stop trusting me.” Ballantoni was always amazed that Peggy would casually glance into her penny candy bag and immediately give her the total cost. “I don’t think they ever actually counted what was in the bag and I don’t think they ever charged me more than 50 cents.”
Sally Platt White remembers bike riding down to the Smoke Shop with her brothers the moment they received their weekly allowance. Their mother Nancy always took comfort knowing that with Tony and Peggy, her kids would be safe. White said Tony and Peggy “ were like another set of parents to us – but the fun kind – after all, they let us get candy and didn’t make us clean up our rooms.” She also recalls that her brother ran away from home a few times over the years, and she’s pretty sure he ended up at the Smoke Shop. Even after White and her brothers moved away and started their own families, they would always stop in to visit with their kids in tow, and Tony and Peggy never failed to ask about their mom and the rest of the family. “They remembered everybody,” says White.
Thomas and Casey Sullivan vividly remember their childhood trips with their father to Frank’s Barber Shop, where Thomas would begrudgingly get a haircut and his sister Casey would sit quietly without complaint – only because she knew the Smoke Shop was their next stop. Each child was given a dollar to spend, and they would chat with Peggy while contemplating their candy choices. Thomas remarks, “nothing capped off a fresh buzz-cut like going to see Peggy and getting a brown paper bag filled with Gummy Worms, Sour Patch Kids, and Swedish Fish.” Casey adds, “We would come in, chat with Peggy, and spend our dollars with pride … our family loved Peggy so much, my little brother Danny named his stuffed animal after her!”
Lisa Burke Fallon fondly remembers walking with her friends from Apawamis Club into town with a dollar in her pocket, the destination always the same, the Smoke Shop. “I laugh when I think back to Peggy coming over as we stood in front of the penny candy for what I am sure felt like an hour to her – and she would say ‘What are you going to get?’” Peggy was so patient and kind, recalls Fallon, and that was her “gentle nudge to have us get our goodies and go.”
Holly O’Neill Melville can’t recall a day when she didn’t know Tony and Peggy. As a young child, she would sit on the counter and chat with them while her mom ran errands around town. As she grew older, she would visit the Smoke Shop every Friday after school and “fill them in on the weekly gossip from school.” When Melville lost her husband Sean on 9/11, and later her parents, Peggy was there with a loving shoulder to cry on. Melville brings her children in on a regular basis, where they sit on the counter with their candy sharing stories with Tony Jr. and Peggy, just as she did as a child. “This little neighborhood place has been a part of what makes Rye Rye . . . and losing this special place means Rye has and will forever be changed . . . and we all mourn its loss.”
Peggy says there are far too many memories to fit in one edition of The Rye Record, but mostly she remembers all the children who spent countless hours hanging out in her shop. “Everyone felt safe in here,” she recalls, and sometimes, kids would stay longer than usual if they were going through a rough patch in their lives. “This was like a second home for so many kids,” says Peggy, and she and Tony would always let them stay until closing time if they needed to talk. Sometimes, Peggy knew more about these kids than their parents, but she would never break their trust – following a kind of “what happens in the Smoke Shop stays in the Smoke Shop” mantra.
Peggy and Tony Jr. vividly recall one teen who was struggling and would sometimes skip school and spend his time at the shop. He decided he may as well be productive and, with Tony and Peggy’s permission, built much-needed shelving on the walls and set up a new sound system for the shop. Always the mischievous youth, he decided one day to glue a quarter to one of the tiles on the front stoop, and sat by laughing as he watched countless excited children try unsuccessfully to pick up the quarter. Peggy also recalls the packs of kids that would come to the Smoke Shop as soon as it opened Saturday mornings to meet up and make plans for the day. They would pile onto the green table in the back of the shop, and to this day, Peggy and Tony Jr. are amazed that the table never buckled or collapsed under the pressure. Kind of like the Smoke Shop itself – staying strong and persevering for so many years, making our days a little bit brighter, our lives a little bit sweeter.
The Rye community sorely misses the iconic Smoke Shop, along with Peggy, Tony Jr., and of course the late Tony Sr. Somehow, they always managed to make our days a little bit brighter, and our lives a little bit sweeter.