The incredible true story behind this East Village institution and its owner.
In 2013, I was in graduate school in New York City, and a regular at an East Village dive bar where a close friend worked as a bartender at the time. On Fridays, she started at around 9 or 10 at night, and I’d swing by right around the time her shift started. After hanging out in my unofficial reserved stool for a few minutes, I’d often take a walk up the street and around the corner to a little sliver of a shop on Avenue A, between 7th and 8th street, that always has its lights on: Ray’s Candy Store.
At Ray’s, I bought my nightly cup of coffee—rarely did I opt for any of the nearby bodegas. If I had the cash, I typically spent it at Ray’s. I’d fork over a dollar for a cup of that bitterly strong, jet fuel-like black coffee that pours out of what I can only assume are ancient machines. Ray sells everything behind that cramped counter in his narrow little shop (yes, he still works in store, at the age of 85), which has been a constant source of comfort and familiarity in the neighborhood since 1974: Tylenol, Egg Creams, soft serve, cheese fries (which really hit the spot after a night of drinking), and that super-hot, almost-oily black coffee. It’s as far from artisanal as you can get—I mean, it’s served in a paper cup. But it is oh so good. It hits your throat and burns and, in the winter especially, warms your body down to the bones. Keeps you up all night, too. I don’t make it to that neighborhood much anymore, but I remember Ray’s coffee very well.
Most people who spent their nights and early mornings roaming the East Village have strong memories of Ray’s Candy Store, a 24-hour haven for the finance bros who hang out in the neighborhood’s bars as well as the local folks who are more likely to hang out in neighboring Tompkins Square Park. As the area fills with gyms, condos, and chain grocery stores, Ray’s Candy Store has struggled to stay open. Ray is a survivor though, and in the midst of all that East Village upheaval, his lights have stayed on.
Now, a new documentary, called “The Candy Store”, aims to tell Ray’s story. Directed by an Iranian filmmaker named Arya Ghavamian, the film—which is still gathering funds from a Kickstarter page, money from which will also go toward buying the shop a new ice cream machine—reveals Ray’s unlikely, but incredible background: Born Asghar Ghahraman, Ray once served in the Iranian navy. Eventually, he jumped ship (literally) and settled in New York, where he took on the identity of a Puerto Rican man named Ray Alvarez. Ray finally became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2011, and along the way, struck up a friendship with Ghavamian—coincidentally, Ray and Ghavamian's father were both born in Tabriz, Iran.
Ghavamian also hopes to highlight how gentrification has pushed out many local businesses in the area, and how Ray likely would not have been able to stay open were it not for the support of his friends and community. Ghavamian feels the story is especially important to tell now, at a time when tensions against immigrants—especially those from the Middle East—are on the rise.
I’ll always remember Ray’s Candy Store as one of the warmest, most welcoming places in New York. Ray himself proves just how resilient New Yorkers are. This is a story worth telling because it’s not just about one man—its also about how immigrants continue to make this city a better, more vibrant place to live.