Once upon a time, Casani Candy supplied the giants - Wanamakers and Strawbridge's, and there was Spain's, the card chain - and all that candy for the schools at recess.

It was, and still is by general consensus, the country's oldest wholesale candy distributor, dating to 1865, still serving close to 500 accounts, now smaller mom-and-pop operations and independents, Hallmark shops, and places down the Shore, Ocean City and Cape May in particular.

In fact, the seashore is now as strong as Christmas, Casani president Jack Lees, 81, was saying the other day; the seashore trade saved Casani's bacon when the department stores started folding.

It was moving week for Casani last week, the final boxes of saltwater taffy and creme mints, mini-peanut chews, and soft-eating licorice and shelled almonds edging toward the loading dock at Building 208 in the old Frankford Arsenal.

By the time you read this, the company will be across the Delaware for the first time since its founding (as Jonas & Casani), ensconced in the Cooper South office complex near the Cooper River in Pennsauken. (It was the open, move-in condition of the space, not any rejection of Philadelphia, that sealed the deal.)

Casani's Building 208 offices had gotten caught up in the shuffle created by a shopping center project at the arsenal; the less-historic northern corner of the old military installation was already being demolished last week, dust rising in clouds over a rubble of brick.

But Lees, who started with the company as an office boy in 1947, won't miss the outpost in the city's Northeast, just a jog from the Bridge Street exit off I-95.

No, it is Casani's long tenure on Second Street in Old City (more than a century, ending in 2001) that he sorely misses, sitting out on a folding chair, having coffee on the sidewalk next to the Fireman's Hall Museum across from the Quarry Street woodworking shop where they made candy-stirring paddles, channeling the days (before his time) when Joe Casani and Milton Hershey - who had a store nearby - were great friends, though "their friendship was kept quiet."

And why was that? Lees dropped his voice, confidingly. Hershey's Mennonite mother was appalled when the confirmed bachelor married Kitty Sweeney, a much younger Irish Catholic beauty.

Casani "was instrumental," Lees whispered, "in getting the marriage performed."

You would have thought it was yesterday.

It was 1898.

The candy mountain

The crux of Casani's business is chipping down the bulk-candy mountain - taking bulk candies (orange slices, spearmint leaves, Gummi bears, Gummi worms, and such) and repackaging them in 25-, 10- and even 5-pound lots.

"Putting the small storekeeper in the bulk business" is the way Lees puts it.

Three panel vans and a 14-foot truck roam South Jersey and the metropolitan area, delivering to hospital gift shops, to Lore's Chocolates at Seventh and Chestnut, to the Shore, racking up $5 million in annual sales, bagging up the small packages of the Gummi sharks sold at chocolate shops and the ribbons of candy buttons sold at fudge emporiums.

About half the candy is made abroad these days. The Swedish fish don't come from Sweden anymore but from Canada (made by Cadbury). The hard candies from Argentina. The licorice shoestrings from the Netherlands.

But the chocolate pretzels that Asher's makes in Souderton are coming on gangbusters; in fact, chocolate items in general, Lees said, are gaining ground.

Indeed, the biggest markets for Goldenberg's Peanut Chews (owned by Just Born, the Peeps company, but still made in the city to keep nuts off the Peeps production lines) are South Korea, China, and Japan.

Holding on to the magic

Soon the orders will come in for the Halloween trade - for jelly pumpkins and sour jelly pumpkins and marshmallow pumpkin faces, for lollipops and wax lips and fangs, for snack bags of M&Ms and Kit Kats and Milky Ways, and, of course, for candy corn.

Did you know, Lees asked, that the Wunderle Candy Co. at Eighth and Somerset was the first to make candy corn in America? (Though by the fateful year of 1898, manufacturing had shifted to Goelitz Confectionary Co. in Cincinnati.)

In the genealogy of confections, Casani presided over - and shaped - the city's candyscape: It was one of the first jobbers to wholesale candy that was made outside Philadelphia.

In a vintage company booklet, you can see a photograph of a flat-capped boy carting a barrel of the company's first major order of mint lozenges shipped from Boston in 1869.

Which is not to say there aren't still local makers among the company's 90 suppliers. Dave Lamparelli dropped by the arsenal in the final days. His Oh Ryan's Irish Potatoes company in Linwood, Delaware County, sends Casani 15,000 pounds of the cinnamon-dusted coconut potatoes each season.

And in a nod to Casani's history, Lees has hatched a plan: He has retrieved two ancient, green-topped desks from storage, the same pair once used in the office he shared with John Casani, who sold him the company in 1973.

Lees will use his old original. The second - John Casani's - will be occupied by his son Joe, the company's general manager, and last week one of its prime movers; he was literally loading the trucks.

"Maybe it'll bring back some of the magic," Lees said.