I walked into Irving’s Toy and Card Shop last Monday under the red and white candy-striped awning that hangs over the Harvard Street sidewalk two blocks from Beacon. A few kids milled around the cozy quarters searching for treasure and I couldn’t help but notice a few adults doing the same. “Stratego!!…my favorite!!” I heard one man of at least forty say as if he’d stumbled across the Holy Grail. A few of the others were there, not for the toys or the candy or the cards, but rather to pay a visit to the Candy Lady herself. Some were obvious regulars and others returning after years, awestruck by how little the store and its owner had changed. It didn’t take long for me to realize this was a special place run by an even more special person.
I wandered around the shop for a few minutes marveling at all of the familiar items from my not quite as distant past. Slinkies, toy soldiers, board games, candy rings and so much more crowd the shelves of Ethel’s landmark business. As the last of her friends and patrons filtered out the door calling out promises to return, I made my way over to introduce myself to Ethel who had taken a seat in a chair by the door. I found out quickly that I was not the first person interested in telling her story and she guessed my intentions before I could even say my name.
Most people, I imagine, would get tired of telling a story (even one this good) so many times to so many people, strangers who in truth will never fully understand its scope. Most people would tire of this, but I know now, as many already do, that Ethel Weiss is not most people. Without hesitation she dragged a stool next to her for me to sit, yanked out a binder overstuffed with photographs and newspaper clippings and said quite plainly but with a ringing sincerity “what would you like to know?”
What I really wanted to know, and what most people seem to want to know, is how she maintains such a positive spirit and virtually endless supply of energy to do this after so many years. Ethel is ninety-four years old, she has outlived two husbands and her boyfriend of many years has resigned to a nursing home in California. She’s lived through seven American Wars, seventeen presidents and five…count ‘em five Red Sox World Series titles. For seventy of those years Ethel has done exactly what she was doing on Monday afternoon, making kids young and old smile with treats, toys, cards and anything else that is just plain fun.
Ethel and her then husband bought the small grocery store and the adjacent house in 1939 with a little help from their parents. Since then, as the world around it has changed in unimaginable ways for good or for bad, Irving’s Toy and Card Shop has remained as it was, an engine of stability and a monument to the importance of life’s simple pleasures. This is part of Ethel’s personal fountain of youth, she said, “being surrounded by so much fun, the children, the toys and just helping people feel happy everyday”.
Though she now runs the store on her own, Ethel is anything but lonely. In the twenty or thirty minutes I sat with her, no less then five people stuck their heads in to say hello but Ethel, who had made a most generous commitment to me asked them politely to come back a bit later. When asked if she has or desires help, in the form of employees or even family members to help her stock and clean she said “I’d rather just do it myself then spend half the day arguing with someone else about how it should be done”. Wiser words may never have been spoken.
It’s not easy to impart the kind of resolve and wisdom about life, aging and finding contentment that is so inherit in Ethel Weiss, but she is openly offering her knowledge to anyone who cares with a poster she had published listing a few of her guidelines for happiness. “Help people as much as you can, but be careful not to let them take advantage of you” “Eat right and do your best to stay healthy” and among others, my personal favorite “pick up that piece of paper on the ground and throw it away, don’t wait for someone else to”. She maintains a quiet pride in what she does and her ability to have done it for so long, and a pride in knowing that she does what she does for the love of the people she’s attracted to her life, and nothing more. Her prices are much lower then they could be, but Ethel is only interested in paying the bills and maintaining her modest yet comfortable life in Brookline.
Though you would never know it if you watched her work for an entire day, Ethel says that lately her legs have been getting tired more and more. She hopes that someone in her family will continue the business if somehow, someday she in unable to, though this is seriously long term planning. For now, Ethel plans on doing exactly what she’s doing every day until kids cease to love candy and toys.
As I got up to leave and pay for my Mother’s Day card and peanut m&m’s Ethel calculated the price. I owed $2.25 and handed her three dollar bills saying “don’t get up please, keep the change” Ethel popped up fast as could be shaking her head “oh no…square is square”, she grabbed for a postcard with a painting of Irving’s Toy and Card Shop on the front, price…exactly seventy-five cents. Then she reached for a marker and signed it, “To David, with happy thoughts and best wishes, Ethel Weiss Brookline, Mass.” (I noted that I had not said my name since our introduction thirty minutes prior) She slipped the postcard in my bag, blew me a kiss and demanded I come back to visit soon.
Written by David Watsky