The Peanut Shoppe was there on South Main Street when the streets of downtown Akron bustled with streetcars and workers from prosperous rubber companies.
It was there still, when the streets were deserted and towering buildings were empty during downtown’s decline in the 1970s and 1980s.
And the Peanut Shoppe, a local icon, is still there today, wrapping up its 80th year in business.
There have been three owners and three locations (all on South Main Street) but the same cast-iron roasters continue to fill the shop with the smell of hot, fresh nuts.
Owner Marge Klein, a fixture behind the counter, marvels when she looks around the shop at how much it has stayed the same despite the decades and the moves. That’s how Klein intends it.
The Peanut Shoppe is one place in downtown Akron where time seems to stand still. The cases, the nuts, the old-fashioned candy and even the faces behind the counter have been there for decades. About the only thing missing is an employee dressed up like Mr. Peanut walking up and down the sidewalk out front handing out samples of freshly roasted nuts to lure customers inside — a constant back in the 1930s and 1940s.
Over the years, plenty of those “Mr. Peanuts” have returned to tell Klein about the job of wearing that costume (kids either loved him or were terrified).
Klein knows that she’s selling a good dose of nostalgia along with peanuts in the shell, cashews and chocolate stars. But then owning the Peanut Shoppe also means being the curator of a slice of downtown Akron history.
Walk inside and you could be walking into the Peanut Shoppe of the 1930s; the only thing missing is the original peanut wallpaper and peanut sacks lining the ceiling.
The walls are covered with photographs, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia from 80 years of Akron history, including a photo of a customer’s son, taken just a few years ago, dressed up as a peanut for Halloween.
Even when the shop relocated across the street 10 years ago, city officials and Klein worked to make sure it remained relatively unchanged, with the same long and narrow layout it had when the shop first opened.
According to information from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Planters Peanuts, which was founded in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., had grown to the point, in 1929, where it spawned two subsidiaries — the National Peanut Corp., which sold and promoted Planters Peanuts, and Planters Edible Oil Co., which sold oil extracted from inedible peanuts.
Between 1930 and 1960, the National Peanut Corp. opened Planters Peanut Shoppes in more than 200 cities across the United States.
Akron’s shop opened in 1933 at 139 S. Main St., between Bowery Street and the Strand Theater, according to newspaper advertisements from the time. Many locals don’t realize the store had a home before its longtime location at 176 S. Main St. It moved there in the spring of 1937, and stayed at the location until the 2004 move across the street to 203 S. Main St.
In 1961, Standard Brands bought Planters, and began phasing out its retail businesses, instead focusing on supermarket sales, according to an article from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Peanut Shoppes across the country were either closed or sold off. Akron’s was purchased by Joe Lampasone, who operated it from the early 1960s until 1980, when he sold it to Klein’s father, Jack Ashbrook.
Klein said it was important to Lampasone that the shop maintain the same look and feel, and her father changed little about it. Her father, who had operated A & A Well Drilling in Clinton, purchased the shop as a way out of the more heavy-labor drilling business. Klein and her sisters Nancy Lynn and Cindy Alexander, and a host of other family members were recruited to help out and the shop became a family affair.
A learning experience
Klein didn’t know a Brazil nut from a filbert at the time.
Her father had intended to run the shop as a retirement job, even purchasing the Whitelaw Building where it was located in 1981. But his plans were cut short in 1998, when he suffered a heart attack and died at age 66, while on vacation in Nashville.
Klein took over as owner, but is quick to credit her sisters, their children, her own kids, and a host of extended family and friends who help to keep the shop humming, particularly through the busy holiday season. She also received a lot of help from Lampasone before his death in 2006.
A big change for the shop came in 2004, when the city purchased the Whitelaw Building, with plans to renovate the structure as part of a project to create a retail and entertainment center around the Civic Theatre. That renovation has yet to happen.
However, the city did help Klein find her new location just across the street, in a space that is similar to the former shop. Akron’s Peanut Shoppe is one of just a dozen of the original Planters shops that are still in operation throughout the country; Columbus and Springfield are home to two others.
At the new location, the shop was able to offer a larger selection of nuts and a larger selection of candy, many of which are nostalgic and hard-to-find varieties.
“I don’t think my dad would have ever sold all of this candy,” Klein said.
She is continually surprised by how much the store means to Akron residents and, in particular, those who have moved away and come home to visit.
“Sometimes I think they’re more excited about the Peanut Shoppe than I am,” Klein said. “They love coming here and want to see it continue.”
Rock musician and Akron native Chrissie Hynde has visited and the female employees still talk about the time, in the late 1980s, when actor Robbie Benson paid a visit. He was performing with the Kenley Players at the Akron Civic next door.
It’s hard to imagine in the midst of her pre-Christmas rush that Klein’s wish for the future is for more foot traffic. “November and December are the only times that we do this kind of business,” she said, noting the rush of customers and stacks of boxes waiting to be mailed.
While her regulars come in each week, there are still folks in Akron who have never stepped foot in the store. Unless there is an event going on at Lock 3 Park or the Civic Theatre, Klein said business can be slow and she hopes that changes so that eventually she can hand the shop down to the next generation.
Her daughter Christy Klein grew up at the shop, often taking a nap in one of the peanut bins. Marge Klein, 64, recently taught her 14-year-old grandson Jacob how to roast peanuts, and her granddaughters, Molly, 12, and Kylee, 9, help out folding boxes.
“I am hoping that it can continue another 80 years,” Klein said, “It’s a family store. The kids love it and people have good memories of it.”
Lisa Abraham can be reached at 330-996-3737 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find me on Facebook, follow me on Twitter @akronfoodie or visit my blog at www.ohio.com/blogs/lisa.