Irving’s: How Death Changes The Meaning Of A Miniature Magical Candy Store

Since being closed in December, Irving's Toy Shop is beginning to look decrepit as the awning is damaged and is tied up with twine after a couple of winter storms. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Irving’s Toy and Card Shop in Brookline, Mass. closed in December after its owner, 101-year-old Ethel Weiss, died. For weeks, the window was plastered with post-it tributes.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

For more than 10 years, I’ve passed Irving’s Toy and Card Shop just about every day. Until recently, the famously tiny store never failed to give me a lift: The happy candy-cane stripes of the awning; the sugary contents; the widely beloved centenarian, Ethel Weiss, who held court inside, dispensing bits of wisdom along with Chuckles and comic books.

Irving’s meant “treat.”

But now, the red-and-white awning is crumpled by the winter winds, and the sight of the dark storefront stabs my heart, a merciless reminder of mortality.

Now, to me, Irving’s means “nothing lasts.”

Irving’s is one of those places you know won’t last forever but you still hope it does.

Ethel Weiss died on Dec. 10 at age 101, after running Irving’s for an astonishing 77 years.

For weeks, the front window was covered with a blizzard of post-it notes, post-mortem tributes from children and former children from the nearby elementary school, all grateful for her kindness and her candy.

In the careful letters of a new writer, one read simply, “I love your candy shop,” signed Markus. Alexa wrote: “To Ethel, I loved your toys.”


In the more controlled writing of older children were more complex messages: “You brought so much joy to me and my friends. Thank you for your generosity. You are missed. ♥ Lara.”

And then there were the much older writers: “Made elementary school much better for me! 1980-1988!” And “We will really miss you! Thought you’d make it to 120! Dr. Jack Porter.”

On our neighborhood Facebook group, we school parents shared our sorrow and talked about ways to memorialize Ethel. A mom posted, “My father, my daughter, and I all bought our very first purchases with our own money as little kids at Irving’s.” A dad wrote: “Irving’s is one of those places you know won’t last forever but you still hope it does.” Later, he added, “I’m so glad she had a chance to do what she loved until she passed. I would hate to see that shop go away.”


I felt the same, but I also had the grim feeling of a spell broken.

WBUR’s Bruce Gellerman wrote a feature about Irving’s in 2013 — he even measured the store’s 15-by-40-foot dimensions — and analyzed my sense of magic lost: “The magic was the connection between your childhood and your children’s childhood — the continuity,” he said.”It was a portal back to your own childhood. It was timeless. It was tangible — not just a symbol — it was tangible evidence of your perpetual youth. The feeling that you walked in there and you were special. You knew Ethel was going to be there, and she was. For almost 102 years. How much better does it get?”

And, he said, everybody needs a penny candy store.

I found myself telling Bruce about the masses of post-it notes on the Irving’s window, and how the grown-up approach is surely to accept that after a certain point, life is no longer just about us getting treats. The outpouring of love prompted by Ethel’s death shows that what matters is not raking in the good stuff but rather giving it to others, leaving a positive mark on the world.

Right, he said. “The essence of life is what you leave in others. You don’t die as long as other people remember you.”

Or even if they don’t remember you. I imagine Ethel Weiss sitting in that 15-by-40-foot box for year after year — what to many of us would have been an oppressive prison — but turning it into a dispenser of good feelings. Irving’s was her purpose in life, and all her customers knew that she loved being there for them. (Hard to miss, when she wore a little sign saying “I love my customers.”)

Ethel Weiss, 100, dances with her daughter Anita Jamieson at the “Party Of The Century” at the Brookline Senior Center. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Ethel Weiss, then 100, danced with her daughter Anita Jamieson at the “Party Of The Century” at the Brookline Senior Center in 2015. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Not to get too woo-woo, but her positive energy emanated out into the world. Whether she’s remembered or not, those ripples continue outward, carried by all the people she affected.

She left a mark; she left the world better. We can all hope to do that.

She also created an institution, and these days, it’s unclear what will become of it. There’s talk in the neighborhood of finding a way to keep Irving’s running, perhaps as a non-profit managed by a nearby senior center, but the store belongs to Ethel’s daughters and they are selling it together with the apartment building next door.

Ethel’s daughter Anita Jamieson emailed me that she doesn’t have an answer yet to the question of what will become of Irving’s: “Of course, a dream would be to sell the property to someone who would continue the store on some level. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the senior center could organize people to staff it?! The trouble is, dreams and reality often conflict.”

She added: “I do expect that we will sell the property in the next few months. No answer for you yet. Only dreams.”

I can’t help but hope that the dream of resurrecting Irving’s as a beloved neighborhood institution can be fulfilled, even with Ethel gone. As Bruce says, everybody needs a penny candy store.

And I think if the store were lit again, its awning straightened, for me it would come to mean, “Yes, we all die. But we can do a lot of good before we go — and some of it may even last a long, long time.”

[Also posted on WBUR’s Cognoscenti blog]

Further reading: Happy 100 To You, And You — Centenarians Multiply, At Forefront Of Age Wave

As Stores Open Early For Black Friday, Irving’s Toy And Card Shop Remains Unchanged

Irving's in 2013 (Bruce Gellerman/WBUR)

Irving’s in 2013 (Bruce Gellerman/WBUR)

Why To Exercise Today (Even A Short Walk): Avoiding A Premature Death

I’ve been having such a hard time dragging myself out in the frigid, icy cold to run or get to a gym lately: there are so many excellent reasons not to do it. But here’s the best I could come up with today for why I shouldn’t listen to that “stay-warm-and-slip-into-bed-with-a-laptop little voice in my head: exercise is truly the “best way to avoid an early death,” according to U.K researchers, who report that even small chunks of exercise — a brisk 20-minute walk, for instance — can provide benefits.

Steve Koukoulas/flickr

Steve Koukoulas/flickr

The U.K. Telegraph headline sums up the new study tidily: “Lack of exercise is twice as deadly as obesity, Cambridge University finds.”

Indeed, this cohort study of 334,161 European men and women over 12 years, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that “physical inactivity may theoretically be responsible for twice as many total deaths as high BMI” and concludes: “The greatest reductions in all-cause mortality risk were observed between the inactive and the moderately inactive groups across levels of general and abdominal adiposity, which suggests that efforts to encourage even small increases in activity in inactive individuals may be of public health benefit.”

Here’s more from The Telegraph report:

Using the most recent available public data, the researchers calculated that 337,000 of the 9.2 million deaths that occurred in Europe in 2008 could be attributed to obesity.

But physical inactivity was thought to be responsible for almost double this number – 676,000 deaths. Continue reading

Scientific American: How Thinking Of Death Affects What We Do

You’re going to die. I’m going to die. We don’t talk about it much. Even though if you ask me, it’s incredible that we talk about anything else, given the existential enormity of that impending black hole.

So it gladdened my heart to find a fascinating Scientific American article on research about the effects of at least thinking about mortality, and how it affects us. The gist: Distant, abstract thoughts of death just make us want to hunker down as we are; more personal, imagined encounters with death can shake us up toward becoming better people.

One of our systems of existential thinking responds to the abstract concept of dying, so that even subtle everyday reminders of death, such as driving past a cemetery, prime the mind to ward off existential terror. This system tends to bolster our already existing beliefs, both religious and cultural, as a way of affirming life. For instance, studies have shown that after people reflect on what will happen when they die, they become more nationalistic and defensive about their political beliefs.

The second existential system is vivid, concrete and highly personal; it is triggered not by subtle and abstract thoughts but by actually coming face to face with death. When this system is primed into action—as the above apartment fire scenario is meant to do—our very personal sense of mortality can lead us to reexamine our priorities in life, to become more grateful and to grow spiritually. Soldiers who have seen combat and people who have lived through life-threatening illnesses often report these shifts in attitude.