Author William Joyce writes in his children’s picture book “Santa Calls” that if main character Art Atchinson Aimesworth had “one weakness, it was sweets and candy of any sort.”
Being from Abilene, as the story tells, perhaps Art’s predilection stemmed from eating confections from Candies by Vletas. The book doesn’t mention this real-life candy store, now across North First Street from the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature, but the shop has been serving up handmade candies in Abilene for more than 100 years.
The candy business started after two brothers immigrated to Texas from Greece, traveling on the Lusitania and coming through Ellis Island in New York. George “Pete” and Nick Vletas (VLEE’-tas) opened their first store on Pine and Main streets in Abilene in 1912.
After many years and many locations all over town, longtime employee and apprentice Pam McCombs bought Vletas from the family in 1999 and moved it to a renovated railway luggage depot in the city’s historic district. She honors the Vletas’ tradition of hand-making candies, including chocolates, pralines and white-chocolate-covered green seedless grapes.
“It’s a lost art,” McCombs says of making candy by hand. “There are very few people who can dip candy and have it turn out pretty.”
McCombs learned the process and recipes by watching her mentor Pete Vletas for 10 years. She now has passed that knowledge on to her daughter Paatan Gailey, who plays an active role in the confectionary’s kitchen, where the family uses the Vletas’ original marble slabs for cooling candy.
“He told me, he said, ‘You’re the only one I would ever let keep my name,’ “ McCombs recalls Pete Vletas saying when she bought the business. “I am just blessed. I love doing this … and I eat chocolate every day.”
The children’s book character Art eats candy, too, and his love of sweets has a recurring role in “Santa Calls.”
Pam McCombs is a member of Taylor Electric Cooperative. Co-op members with a Co-op Connections card receive a discount.
Suzanne Haberman, staff writer