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Charm Offensive

Photo By Bradley Gordon

Good Mojo and Bad Blood On Saratoga Street

Batimore City Paper 9/19/2007

By Chris Landers

LINDA FRANGIONI HAS BEEN KNOWN AS GRANDMA since she was 23, long before she became an actual grandmother. The man she refers to as her “very, very, very ex-husband” opened Grandma’s Candles in 1978, and Frangioni has run the store ever since. The shop, currently located on West Saratoga Street, carries religious and spiritual items for every taste–mojo bags and floor washes, oils and incense, lottery tip sheets and, of course, the large jar candles decorated with saints and icons that give the store its name.

Grandma’s Candles sits at 227 W. Saratoga, and Frangioni says her shop has become a destination for some customers looking for good luck in various forms. She sells things they can’t get just anywhere, and everything she sells has a story behind it. Even the name “Grandma” has a tale, and it has to do with a store two blocks away, stocked with candles and floor washes and charms and tip sheets. The official name of the store at 121 W. Saratoga is Lucky Star Candles, but the shop window gives the true spirit of the place: “Home of Old Grandpa.” Grandma’s and Grandpa’s have both been caring for the spiritual health of downtown Baltimore for three decades, squabbling like an old married couple the whole time. The feud isn’t as hot as it was when Old Grandpa ran his store, but despite their similarities, there’s no love lost between the candle merchants.

It was the lottery tip sheets that started it. Everyone seems to agree on that. Decorated with clip art and lucky slogans, the tip sheets offer anyone who plunks down a dollar or so for a month’s worth of numbers a chance at the big win, courtesy of “Grandma,” depicted on the cover as an old crone (the picture bears no resemblance to Frangioni), holding symbols of good fortune–a playing card, a bag of money.

In the mid-’70s, Frangioni’s then-husband was a printer who handled the tip sheets sold at Old Grandpa’s Candles (now Lucky Star), then located on Mulberry Street, as well as a competing “Grandma” brand tip sheet. Old Grandpa–known to family and friends as Phil Perry–didn’t take kindly to his printer working for the competition, and there was a dispute. The exact nature of the dispute is unclear, and probably doesn’t matter anymore, but the result lives on–the printer opened Grandma’s Candle a few doors down from Old Grandpa, and the two stores have maintained an uneasy coexistence ever since. Each has moved around a bit, but the two shops are now on Saratoga, in the lower floors of buildings owned by the shopkeepers, and both say they intend to stay.

“He swore we’d never make it in business,” Frangioni says of Grandpa, “I really believe they’re only still there because we’re here.”

“There’s no rivalry,” says Ted Perry. “I’ve never been in her store. I haven’t talked to her in 20-some years.” Perry, 50, is Old Grandpa’s son, and has been involved in the family business his whole life. His wife, Kim Perry, runs the day-to-day operations of the store, behind a counter covered in religious totems and jewelry. The wall opposite the cash register is lined with jars of oil, which Perry says he makes himself according to the recipe of his great-grandmother. (“She was part Sioux Indian,” Perry says.) Perry grew up around his father’s store, and here his father lives on. He still sells the old videotaped copies of the movie serials Old Grandpa loved, and his father’s bearded visage still peers out from 20,000 copies of the Old Grandpa tip sheets, with numbers calculated from his old formula, every month.

According to Frangioni, Old Grandpa over the years would occasionally threaten to put curses on her customers.

“Probably 25 years ago,” Frangioni remembers, “when I moved my shop to Park Avenue, Old Grandpa stood outside the door to my shop telling customers if they came in, he’d put a curse on them. Telling people not to go down there, or we’d put a curse on them–that we were witches and evil. All through the years that’s what it was, that we were witches and evil. [Customers] are coming here to get uncrossed or unjinxed, and you’ve got someone standing outside the door telling them they’re going to get cursed, of course that’s going to have an effect.”

But Frangioni admits things have cooled down since 2003, when Grandpa passed away and his son took over. “We’ve never been on what you would call speaking terms, but we’re not enemies like his father was.”

“He had the occult shop in the late ’60s,” Perry recalls of his father. “Then he did herbs and things in the ’70s, and ’76 to here is when he came up with Old Grandpa for lottery books, when the lottery came out. That’s what he’s famous for–these go all over the country.” Perry refers to Grandma’s entrance on the lottery tip-sheet scene as “when that band of thieves got hold of it.”

When Old Grandpa died of a heart attack, Perry thought about closing the store–he works in mortgages, his 11 brothers and sisters are successful in other fields, his two sons were pursuing their own careers. Then he heard that Frangioni, at her store a few blocks away, had been telling people that with Grandpa gone, his store would likely close down. That pissed him off. He revamped the store and started a web site. “It’s hurting her,” he says. “Best way to get them is in their pocket. The old man’s still here and his spirit’s here.”

If the shops seem similar (both owners say customers are occasionally confused), to Frangioni and Perry the differences are stark. Perry makes his own tip sheets, according to his father’s formula. Frangioni hires out for the job. Frangioni carries stocks for a wide variety of religions that Perry won’t touch.

“She’s into the pagan stuff,” he says. “We don’t do nothing with witchcraft or pagan stuff here. All ours”–he indicates a shelf of candles and oils–“have prayers and psalms and stuff like that. We don’t sell voodoo dolls and that stuff.”

“It’s a very mystical, spiritual store,” Frangioni says of Grandma’s, “a lot of the Southern roots type of Hoodoo magic and every religion. The only thing I knew about was Christianity–I was raised Catholic–but it corresponds: the pagan religions and the voodoo religions and Santería.”

“We carry a lot of statuary–we have Egyptian, African, Christian statues, Buddha statues,” she continues. “People walk in and say, `Is this a voodoo shop?’ Well, that’s what they see. Other people walk in and see a very Christian store, with the rosaries and the medals and the prayer cards. It’s been a very interesting business. There’s nothing boring about this place.”

Up at Old Grandpa’s, Gloria Jones stops in to get some gamblers’ oil to give her an edge at the casinos. She knew Grandpa for a long time, used to come down years ago with her mother (she politely declines to say how many years). Perry confides that his customers run the gamut– old and young, professional people, even a few athletes (“I can’t give you names, you understand”).

“The main thing everyone is looking for is money,” Frangioni says. “Money is number one. Love is second. But some weeks love is first, it depends. In the fall, when court cases start picking up, we’ll start selling a lot of things for court and for trial. In summertime that seems to not be as popular. When people go back to school they get things to help them with their memory–different candles, different oils and stones. In the summer when the kids are home, people look for stuff to create a peaceful environment in their home. It’s season to season and depends on what’s going on. Right now a lot of people are looking for jobs. Jobs are a big thing right now.”

Whether they attempt to cure their ills with a candle, oils, spell, or charm, Frangioni says what she really sells is advice. For example, she says, “if somebody walks up to you and says, `My husband left me, what do I do to get him back?,’ I get more into detail with the customer, because I want to find out why did he leave, and then I try to tell them, `Take it back–what was it like when things were good between you? What are you doing different?’ And they start thinking and changing stuff. They need a candle to burn alongside of that to remind them about the change they’re making. I always tell them, `The candle’s a reminder of what you’re trying to accomplish. A candle’s not going to make money fall out of heaven. It’s not going to make your lover come back because you’re burning it. You have to make changes.'” Frangioni, as Grandma, offers consultations by appointment, which Perry emphatically does not.

“We don’t do readings here,” he says. “A lot of people do readings and it kind of just takes peoples’ money. . . . We had a card reader in the ’80s and we threw him right out of here.”

“People believe in it, though,” says Kim Perry from behind the counter. “I mean, we don’t, but a lot of people do.”

Frangioni says her consultations are more like intensive advice sessions–she looks over legal documents and home loans, or advises customers on matters ranging from the medical to the metaphysical. “I feel like I’m a doctor, I’m a psychiatrist, I’m a lawyer,” she says. “I have no formal training in any of it. A lot of it’s just common sense, but most people don’t know.”

One thing the shopkeepers agree on is their neighborhood. Both say the past few years have started to reverse a downward slide for their piece of downtown, a trend they hope will continue, with a little luck, or a lot of candles.

“Sometimes somebody might find a $50 bill on the ground, you know,” Frangioni says. “If you’re burning a candle and that happens, did the candle make you find it or was it a coincidence? Who’s to say?”

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