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Colorado Springs family-owned business is ground zero for old-fashioned candies

December 18, 2013 Updated: December 18, 2013 at 2:40 pm
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photo - Alice Spencer-Robinson holds some of the items Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, that can be found at the Candy Basement at Spencer's Produce, Lawn & Garden Center on Tejon Street. The Candy basement as featured old fashioned candies since the 1940s.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Alice Spencer-Robinson holds some of the items Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013, that can be found at the Candy Basement at Spencer's Produce, Lawn & Garden Center on Tejon Street. The Candy basement as featured old fashioned candies since the 1940s. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

Meet Alice Spencer-Robinson, chief elf at the Candy Basement at Spencer's Produce, Lawn & Garden Center. With candy cane-striped glasses and a holiday sweater, you can't miss her.

But you might wonder what a candy store is doing in the basement of a gardening center. That business, at 1430 S. Tejon St., which has been in the Spencer family since 1934, has supported the candy store since the 1940s.

"My dad and uncles were members of the Elks Club 309," Spencer-Robinson said. "In the 1940s, the club had a Christmas party for underprivileged children. They gave each child candy, nuts and a toy in a red mesh stocking."

Her parents negotiated a deal with Brach's Confections Inc. to buy candy in bulk to support the annual holiday party. The excess goodies soon morphed into an extension of the family produce market.

"My dad would load up a semi with tables, candy, nuts and fruit to take to the Chief theater downtown, where the club members would fill the stockings for the children's party. There would be thousands of children."

The tradition continues today but on a much smaller scale. Now the gathering is for about 300 children.

The Candy Basement has become a year-round retail store.

"In the beginning, the candy store operated only between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve," Spencer-Robinson said. "My parents' intention was to sell candy to churches, service organizations and philanthropic groups who relied on the sweet treats for fundraising."

But in 1982, after moving away from Colorado Springs, Spencer-Robinson returned with her husband, Dan, and joined forces again with the family to run the gardening center.

"When I came home, I decided to make the Candy Basement a year-round store," she said. "I wanted to specialize in hard-to-find, old-fashioned candies and tasty Colorado products."

The Candy Basement always had been in the original family home, which served as a local produce market. But before expanding the candy operation from seasonal to year-round, Spencer-Robinson sought advice from Andy Michopoulos, then owner of Michelle's candy store.

"He said our basement storage area was the perfect temperature," she said. "We didn't need to change anything. I just added candy bins and some shelving."

The shop is nothing fancy, but your eyes will pop when you see bins brimming with candy canes of all sizes, colors and flavors, and shelves loaded with colorful lollipops, ribbon candy and other nostalgic holiday treats. And, of course, there are plenty of red mesh stockings filled with goodies.

"I shop all year for old-fashioned candies," Spencer-Robinson said.

There are plenty of other things to lure you into the shop, such as jams, jellies and honey made by Colorado producers, nuts in the shell or shelled, old-fashioned cooking supplies, and gourmet spices. One of the top sellers is shelled Spanish peanuts.

"We sell pounds and pounds of these," she said. "People like to make their own brittle to sell at craft fairs, and they come here to buy the nuts."

The Candy Basement is a blast from the past, where visitors can pick up unique treats to sweeten up the holiday season.

"We are part of a dying breed - so many traditions of family-owned businesses becoming a thing of the past, like Red Top, Michelle's and The Little Market," Spencer-Robinson said. "I refuse to give up."

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