When the sun comes up over Wilkens Avenue, a line has already formed at Rheb's, the legendary West Baltimore candymaker. For decades, Baltimoreans have been making the pilgrimage to the small shop—behind a corner rowhome, across from Saint Agnes Hospital—for holiday candy. Tuesday, the line starts forming a little before 7 am.
"This is the second time this month that I’ve been out here," says Mary Donohue. "I’ve been coming for at least 25 years."
Standing nearby, Sheila Mayer gives a knowing nod. "My mother was a nurse at St. Agnes," says Mayer, "and she always got all of our Christmas candy here. All of our candy came from Rheb’s."
"I've been coming here a little over 40 years," says Lee Homens. "And I don't even eat candy. Is that loyalty or insanity? I gift it, because I know it's the best."
"I always come for dark chocolate, vanilla butter creams, and caramels," notes Donohue. After a pause, she adds: "And also chocolate covered walnuts and cashews. Once, I didn't get in line and tried coming late, but that didn’t work—they were out of caramels. I hope they have caramels today."
Mayer says she's partial to butter creams and dark chocolate. Her mother came for the chocolate-covered cherries and caramels, which prompts Donohue to repeat, "I hope they have caramels today."
"You know, this place is a Maryland treasure," says Mayer. "We have our crabs, and we have our Rheb's."
"Nothing compares to this," adds Donohue. "They’re consistent, and that’s the key. And it’s still made by hand—that’s the best part about it. It’s personalized, not like a factory.
"And the people who wait in line are more congenial than if you’re in line at the supermarket," notes Homens.
Donohue and Mayer smile.
Over the next half hour, the group speculates about the number of clerks that will be working—there's been talk of new hires—what the basement factory is like—no one's ever been inside—and what it would be like to live next door. "Think about it, you could practically choose your own time to get your candy," says Donohue.
A few minutes before the 8:30 am opening time, a newcomer appears and heads to the front. "Don’t buck the line, lady," says Donohue, under her breath. "You might get beat up." That elicits a few chuckles, but the newcomer just says hello to someone in line, and any potential ugliness is averted. By this time, the line stretches down the block.
At precisely 8:30—not a minute earlier or later—the door opens, and people file inside the tiny shop to place their orders. About 20 minutes later, Donohue exits with bags in hand and a big grin on her face. She got her caramels.