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Development Puts Crunch on Hot Peanut Tradition

October 19, 1986|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

LONG BEACH — David Meade had stopped at the Marmion Co. to buy seven pounds of peanuts.

"I've had peanuts all over the world," said Meade, a teacher at the county's Juvenile Hall in downtown Los Angeles, who has been to Zaire, Senegal, Brussels, Rotterdam and Paris. "I rate these No. 1."

Ben Wasserman, a Long Beach attorney, said he stops by weekly for 10 pounds of the stuff to share during happy hour at the Hung Jury, a nearby tavern frequented by judges, lawyers and other courthouse personnel.

"They're fresh and they're hot," Wasserman said. "Whatever we don't eat at happy hour goes to my secretary and friends."

It was major league baseball playoff week, and at the Marmion Co. in downtown Long Beach, business was booming. For nearly 80 years the company has been serving a quaint version of Americana in forms ranging from licorice, jellybeans and chocolate to coffees, teas and spices. Since the 1940s the company's main seller--especially during baseball playoffs and the World Series--has been the peanuts, freshly roasted on site each day, supplemented by an odd assortment of paper products and janitorial supplies. The owners believe that theirs is the oldest continuous business in Long Beach.

Modern Promenade Planned

But all that may be coming to an end. Smack in the city's downtown redevelopment district, the Marmion Co. is on a site scheduled within two years to be transformed into a modern entertainment promenade consisting of sleek theaters, stores and restaurants.

"It makes your heart sink," said George Marmion, 74, whose grandfather, William H. Marmion, began the business in 1907. "We've got so many friends here who know where we are."

His wife, Ruth, 72, who helps him tend shop five days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., added: "I know we'll miss it. What will we do every day?"

According to Roger Anderman, executive director of the city's redevelopment agency, the Marmion Co. is exactly the kind of business the city would like to keep downtown. "It's the kind of interesting, unusual shop that brings people to a downtown area and makes it exciting," Anderman said. "Even if we can't keep them at that location, we would like to work with them to find another location."

But Marmion says he and his wife are too old to start over. And his son, Robert G. Marmion, 48, who has been working in the family business for the past four years, says he is not inclined to keep it going. "To keep the business, you'd have to keep the atmosphere of it," he said. "That would be almost impossible in another store."

Although the Marmion Co. occupied two other sites in its early years, both within a block of where it is now, the business has been at 244 East 3rd St. since the early 1920s. That long history is evident today to anyone entering the shop, a 25-by-100-foot structure resembling a warehouse complete with skylights and huge stacks of brown burlap bags. Among the historical accouterments are the original set of black tins once used to store exotic spices and the large antique roaster formerly used for coffee beans and now primarily for peanuts.

"It's fun when people come in and say they remember being brought here by their mothers," Robert Marmion said.

These days, however, the fun is tempered by a nostalgic sadness, a sense of impending loss that seems to make the quaint shop even dearer to those who stop by.

Like any business, the Marmion Co. has experienced its share of changes over the years. Reflecting the dramatic demographic evolution of the downtown area, for instance, the shop now draws customers from a much wider range of ethnic and racial communities than in the past.

Separated by language, culture and custom, George Marmion said, they are united by their love of peanuts, of which the company sells 800 to 1,000 pounds a week. A one-pound bag of unshelled peanuts cost about 20 cents in the early 1940s, he said. Now it goes for $1.50.

Other things remain the same. The shop still attracts large numbers of peanut customers from neighboring office buildings sent by co-workers or employers for a regular supply. Area bars continue to order Marmion peanuts by the sack, especially during World Series week. And as always, the company keeps attracting new generations of customers discovering its culinary delights for the first time.

Last week, for instance, Whitney Greaves, 22, a legal research assistant in the nearby court building, made her second pilgrimage to the Marmion Co., bringing with her a fellow peanut lover who had never been there.

"Everyone was coming back from lunch with peanuts," she said of her first visit to the place three weeks before, "so I thought I'd try them. I heard you could smell them (from the street) and you can."

Both she and her friend, Mike Darnold, however, were distressed to hear that the Marmion Co. might soon be no more. "It's kind of sad," Greaves said. "We won't have warm peanuts."

But she visibly brightened as another thought took hold. "We'll have to come down here a lot" in the next two years, she said.

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