Mondel's Chocolates on Broadway at 114th Street is a tiny, crowded enclave of candy, tins and boxes, ribbon, and most of all, chocolate. Its clientele, besides students and community members, is wide enough to encompass celebrities and even a wandering Iowan.
"I'm taking some back to Iowa," said Thomas C. Fritzsche, an Iowan in New York for the Kerry campaign. "We have some nice places in Iowa, but this is where Kate Hepburn came."
A flier in the store displays a picture of the late Katharine Hepburn and a quote from her about chocolate from A. Scott Berg's biography Kate Remembered: "The best in the world," she insisted, "came from a small shop on upper Broadway called Mondel's."
"We have customers who just come in for the Katharine Hepburn list," employee Paula Blat said, referring to the list of Hepburn's favorite chocolates. "She loved dark chocolate, dark pecan turtles, buttercrunch, dark almond bark, and orange peel."
Hepburn especially loved the chocolate, causing Blat to add an afterthought with a smile, "And she lived to what, 94, 95?" In fact, Hepburn lived to be 96.
Turtles, caramel with nuts in either milk or dark chocolate, are a favorite at Mondel's, Blat said. Other bestsellers include all kinds of truffles and buttercrunch.
Blat, who has worked at Mondel's for 14 years, has met Hepburn and other celebrities such as Macaulay Culkin and Lauren Bacall, who came to Mondel's to buy chocolates for Hepburn.
There are a "lot of interesting people," Blat concluded.
Katharine Hepburn certainly is a draw. As Morningside Heights resident Rosa Geathers said while standing outside the store, "I've seen [Mondel's Chocolates] on the news. But this is my first time actually seeing it."
Other customers were drawn to Mondel's by more than Hepburn.
Arjun Shankar, SEAS '06, was attracted by the strong chocolate smell. "Smell is 95 percent [of the experience] of eating chocolate."
Shankar was looking to buy chocolate espresso and coffee beans for his girlfriend, but he was sidetracked to the mint squares.
"I love mint," he gushed, and even after saying he preferred mint cookies and stating, "I would get them here, but I know I can get them for less," he ended up buying some.
Standing in the crowded store still lined with shiny red Valentine's day paper, Shankar highlighted another draw of Mondel's.
"It looks nice. It's homey. It's cozy. If it's too big you feel overwhelmed. [In Mondel's], if I want a raspberry chocolate, I know where to find it."
Shankar was in Mondel's for the first time, but Blat emphasized how many customers return.
She described people who had patronized Mondel's as Columbia students coming back with their own children. Mondel's customers hail from as far away as midtown, the suburbs, and even, in Fritzche's case, Iowa. Mondel's also ships orders to anywhere in the country.
Blat also described an incident printed in The New York Times in which a man who had come to Mondel's 30 years earlier returned and the salesperson knew his order.
"It's like a continuation," she said. Mondel's Chocolate is "more or less a landmark" and "part of Columbia University life."