The British often complain about an invasion of American themed this-and-that, from burger joints to twangy accents picked up from television. I love my adopted countrymen, but for an American living far from home, these complaints can be tiresome.
However, there is one Yankee invasion I hate as much as the locals: a sudden sprouting of American candy-themed stores in London. There are nine of them on Oxford Street alone. A guy called Chase Manders is to blame for them. He started importing and selling American candy to Britain 18 years ago and opened Kingdom of Sweets on Oxford Street in 2012. Soon after, stores that once sold knickknacks to tourists started muscling in.
I wanted to take a look to see what all the fuss was about. Could these shops cast me back to my childhood? The answer was emphatically no. I went to Kingdom of Sweets on Oxford Street and to the nearly-adjacent American Candy Land and found them to be almost identical in décor, and fully identical in merchandise. I expected them to be soulless tourist traps, like so many recent additions to Oxford Street. But I didn’t expect to be so shocked.
London’s ‘American candy stores’ are most un-American. America is known in Europe for excess. Anything you want, any flavor, style, color, any size, as long as it’s EXTRA EXTRA-LARGE. Choice is a form of wealth after all, and the more the better. So why not sell American candy to those Europeans who’ve seen these tantalizing products in expensive American movies and television?
But real Americans don’t go to these candy stores. We don’t even really have them in America – except M&M’s World (more on that horror later). You can buy junk food or candy in any corner store, hardware store, gas station or pharmacy in the US. We rarely have stores just for candy. You can get it anywhere, and that’s how we like it.
But what shocked me was how sordid these shops are. At Kingdom of Sweets ‘Cola Willies’, ‘Candy G-Strings’ and ‘Jelly Super Sperms’ take pride of place alongside actual sex shop items like ‘Edible Body Paints’. Cola Willies? Never would a respectable American sell those, let alone use the term ‘willy’. I don’t know what we’d call them but it wouldn’t be cola willies. The most shocking to me was a lollipop quite realistically shaped like a vulva. That was closely followed by the ‘Blow Job Practice Willy’.
‘Is that meant to be life-sized?’ I asked the store clerk. ‘That could do some real damage.’
He didn’t answer.
Americans think of Brits as uptight, but Americans are actually pretty prudish about sex, at least in public. But that’s not the point. The point is that customers of a candy store are presumably children. Or perhaps not. These stores are for the jaded and the joyless, a place to stock up for yet another bachelorette party.
This is not an American candy store. It’s an abomination. It’s a tourist, candy and sex store all Frankensteined into one. I resent my country’s association with it, and not because I’m a prude. I won’t apologize for their presence on the streets of London, because I do not acknowledge them as being American.
At least I’m not alone. The Google reviews speak for themselves. Visitors are appalled by, they claim, candy being sold well past its sell-by date. The prices aren’t even displayed. When I visited, there were makeshift price tags stuck on with Scotch tape.
Where did this candy-land craziness start? M&M’s World is the original of its kind. The first shop opened in Las Vegas in 1997. Bigger ones soon followed in places like New York City and the Mall of America. I first experienced an M&M’s World in my junior year of high school in 2007, and I remain as baffled by its appeal now as I was then. My drama class took a trip to New York and, by way of a cultural tour, it was decided M&M’s World was top of the itinerary. MOMA, anyone? Statue of Liberty? Hell, I’ll even settle for Tiffany’s and the rest of Fifth Avenue, but please God, don’t take me to M&M’s World.
What even happens in there? I refused to go inside, so I didn’t find out. I killed time loitering on the street, bored in the middle of Manhattan, but I was resolute. Call me a snob if you like, but I’m proud that my 16-year-old self understood these venues for the rackets that they are. Google ‘M&M’s World’ and the top search is ‘What can you do in M&M’s World?’ Good question. Here are the top answers: ‘You can see M&M’s in pretty much every color!’ ‘Print your own personalized M&M’s.’ ‘M&M’s 3D movie.’ ‘M&M’s Photo op: get your photo taken with M&M’s characters!’.
Back to American Candy Land on Oxford Street. My husband insisted I check it out because Kingdom of Sweets isn’t American enough. ‘Why is it a “kingdom” if it’s American?’ he asked. I looked for something appealing. Instead I found more Cola Willies and rows and rows of Pop-Tarts. 24kGoldn’s ‘Mood’ – the worst pop song of 2020, no contest – blared uncensored from the sound system. I couldn’t take it anymore. I settled for three packs of strawberry Twizzlers, of which I’m still fond, and four individually wrapped Jolly Ranchers (50p each), watermelon flavored. They didn’t have cinnamon. I blew my entire £30 budget on this measly lot. The Jolly Ranchers were past their sell-by date.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s October 2021 World edition.