According to a Yiddish saying — one of many that pepper the bittersweet nostalgia of author and illustrator Martin Lemelman’s graphic memoir Two Cents Plain: My Brooklyn Boyhood — “Life is the biggest bargain. You get it for free.”
And for a lucky many, the author shares his life — whether episodically or in arcs, via snippets and vignettes — being raised the son of Holocaust survivors during the 1950s and ‘60s in the back of his family’s Brownsville, Brooklyn candy story. These particular wonder years came and went before the ‘70s when an era of decay and poverty overtook the resourcefully-maintained Jewish neighborhoods, and the “ice cream, cigarettes, and toys” of the Lemelman family-owned Teddy’s Candy Store were “replaced with rubble, broken glass, and splintered wood.”
In this rich sketch and scrap book of sorts – a compelling compendium of expressively-rendered anecdotes and black-and-white drawings, documents, photos, and artifacts — Lemelman begins Two Cents Plain with those grim days of wartime and war torn Europe to chronicle the struggles of his and his brother Bernard’s parents to get to the United States, and their ultimate dilemmas and decisions that went into opening the candy, comic books, and novelties store – kid tested, mom ultimately approved.
With extended family in the area and cultural links in the community, evocatively rendered by Lemelman — as a child called Mattaleh by his parents — the storyline of Two Cents Plain, all wit and woe, is variously made up of piecemeal fragments and extended sweeps. As much as we come to know friends and local denizens – the fish man, the fruit man, the deli man – increasing strains of changing times, demographics, and violence, where “it was open season on Jewish boys,” are vividly portrayed, too.
In the meantime, however, Lemelman harkens back to a time of personal recollections and pop cultural touchstones. One event that turned out to be an important milestone was the time an inquisitive Mattaleh found a painting set and artist supplies among items left behind by a previous tenant of the store. “The moment I pressed brush to paper…” Lemelman says, “time slowed down. Minutes turned into hours. As if by magic – a face appeared on my paper, a tree, a house, a bird, a Pepsi bottle, hands…”