Hey sugar

Powell’s has infinite possibilities for nostalgia, hyperglycemia

MORE CREAM <br> Powell’s gelato rises to the top in a “shoppe” full of sweets.

Powell’s gelato rises to the top in a “shoppe” full of sweets.

Photo By Matt siracusa

Powell’s Sweet Shoppe 121 W. Third St.

Powell’s Sweet Shoppe

121 W. Third St.
Chico, CA 95928

(530) 332-9866

It’s hard to imagine an 18th-century farmer being nostalgic for much. Progress was largely gradual back then; material circumstances were slow to change. But in the fast-forwarding world of today, where landscapes are being paved over, commerce is being mini-malled and traditional ways of life are getting mauled, too, there grows an ever-louder longing for the deeper authenticity of an idealized, imagined past.

Powell’s Sweet Shoppe in Chico, an olden-time themed (notice the extra letters in the spelling of “Shoppe”) candy and gelato parlor, taps into this elegiac longing with abandon. Upon entering, senses are simultaneously struck by an onslaught of kitschy, kaleidoscopic Technicolor, velvety, powder-sugar scents and cutesy, candy-centric songs. For adults it’s a multisensory invitation to travel into sweet reverie. For kids, it’s an invitation to go berserk.

There are baseball cards, lunch pails, a real mini tractor and popcorn maker; there’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory on loop, an M&M dispenser as tall as Shaquille O’Neal and a genuine library card catalogue chocked-full with confections—here is a topography of Nostalgia Americana (a shared mental landscape where racism, class struggle and other such strife are conspicuously absent) on full display.

Though Powell’s Sweet Shoppe is a blast, there is, I think, an ambiguous authenticity to the experience created there. With its “Main Street USA feel” one thinks instantly of Disneyland and its synthesized yesteryear. And herein lies the urban-planning rub: When we try to create a Main Street “feel” on our actual Main Street, are we not in danger of slowly creating a Disneyland version of our own town?

Moreover, Powell’s Sweet Shoppe is a franchise, a “chain.” They dot the western part of the United States in other “Main Street” locales. But circumscribe these reservations for the following reasons. First: It’s much more enjoyable to forget, at least momentarily, the whole “chain” thing, and give in instead to another chain, namely the chain of associations that the candies and bric-a-brac evoke. That is, even if an experience is provoked by somewhat synthesized circumstances, the experience itself—had, as it is, in your heart and in your mind (and in your mouth)—is no less authentic, no less real.

Second: the staff is exceptionally friendly and natural. Many have been employees since the store’s inception (this past Fourth of July marked its second anniversary). There’s none of that “Hi, welcome to ____, would you like to try one of our new ____” automaton crap.

Third: They run a bunch of positive programs that are fun for the community, such as having customers send cards and candy to soldiers in Iraq. Those inclined toward skepticism might see sinister symbiotic collusion in a rewards program in which dentists award cavity-free kids with candy. I see sensible (if not irony savvy) behaviorism.

Fourth and yet foremost: The gelato is truly world class. As Nancy Carlson, the gracious co-proprietor (for further cute irony, note that Nancy majored in nutrition at Chico State back when there was a Home-Ec. department, and at one point worked in a dentist’s office) explained on a recent visit: “Gelato is an Italian ice cream that has 50-percent less air than regular ice cream and additional butter cream, which makes it richer, creamier, denser and makes the flavors adhere to the palette. It seems like … like something more.”

This is exactly right. And Powell’s gelato is particularly, surprisingly dense—almost taffy-like; tails of it trail behind as mini plastic-colored spoonfuls are pulled away. Though more caloric, the density makes it more filling so that a child’s size is plenty. Thus, it’s a great bargain, too. The flavors: burgundy cherry, Bavarian mint and s’mores, to name a few favorites, do indeed seem like something more, as if they jab just a little sharper into your consciousness. This gelato is so good that, as you scrape the bottom of the cup with your little plastic spoon, a new nostalgia forms, one for the very recent and very delicious past.