Johnstown was recovering from a third great flood when a recently retired bank executive opened a small Franklin Street candy shop in 1978.
His penny candy and “pick-it-yourself” concept became a hit. And in the years that followed, he opened several more nearly identical shops in the area.
But in recent years, Johnstown’s “candy man,” Bill Felix, has fallen on hard times.
His shelves sat empty several times this year. Days passed without a single customer, he said. And health problems started to pile up as fast as his monthly bills.
His lone remaining shop, The Candy Store on Market Street, has remained open. But only because Felix maintains he can’t bring himself to walk away.
“On Small Business Saturday ... I didn’t see a single person,” Felix said, stroking his smoky white beard. “At one point, I only had five pieces of penny candy left in this entire store.”
During the past week, stories of Felix’s struggles started to spread online. Now, a group of nearly 30 Johnstown-area residents is rallying around him, aiming to get Felix and his shop back on track.
“He was always there for us as kids. We all have memories of going there when we were growing up,” said Tom Rohde, 40, of Richland Township.
“Seeing what he’s been through lately, it’s such a sad story.”
Led by the Mommy’s Club Garage Sale group, a network of hundreds of local moms, volunteers plan to spend Saturday cleaning and repainting the store, restocking shelves and filling up the glass candy jars that have greeted children for a generation.
“We just want to help,” said Lisa Fetzko-Kozich, a Mommy’s Club founder. “We want to shed light on the fact that he’s still down there and he’s still open for business.”
Felix says the group has already made a difference.
Their call for community support on the social networking site Facebook has turned heads, he said.
Folks have dropped off donations – and more importantly, stopped in to buy the Swedish Fish, Tootsie Rolls and dozens of other candies his store has offered for years, mostly at 2 cents.
“They’ve been amazing,” he said. “They haven’t just lent me a hand. They’ve given both arms.”
Felix yearns for downtown Johnstown’s busier days, when a steady stream of smiling children skipped into his shop.
But sitting in his store on Wednesday alongside a stack of empty candy boxes, Felix suggested he’d be content to see business back to the way it was five or 10 years ago.
The current economy has made tough times worse, he said. And special draws such as hockey games aren’t nearly as good for business as they once were.
The former ECHL Johnstown Chiefs left town three years ago – and weren’t fully replaced until a junior hockey club came to town this fall.
New regulations at Cambria County War Memorial Arena barring outside goods, including his penny candy, put another dent in sales, he said.
Felix admits his shop might not look quite as welcoming as it once did, when colorful, candy-covered storefronts greeted passers-by.
“I’d like to eventually change that – put up a new sign,” he said, while noting cataract issues have blurred his vision.
Now in his late 70s, he uses a cane to get around.
“It’s not so simple anymore,” Felix added.
Kozich hopes to change that a bit.
She said the group is helping him with his efforts to get eye surgery – and said The Candy Store will soon look a lot different.
Dozens of area residents have been reaching out to the group, offering aid.
Shorty’s Italian Smokehouse is ordering bags of new candy for the store and donating a mini-fridge, Rohde said.
Others are bringing in a Christmas tree to light up the storefront window, he said.
“It is Christmas, after all,” Rohde said.
The group said those wishing to chip in can email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We’re telling people they can drop things off Saturday,” Rohde said. “But the message we really want people to know is ‘Hey, if you want to help, stop in and talk to Bill. And buy some candy.’ ”