“It all started in this back room in 1967,” Melody Manning says of a 17x17-square-foot room tucked into the rear of her businesses, the Peter Pan Gift Shop and the adjoining T.R. Bell Gifts.
Past the women’s trendy scarves and stretchy tunics, behind the Gund peek-a-boo bears, vibrant wallets and fashionable keychains, and beyond the greeting cards and temptations of chocolate-covered pretzels, is the back room—now called the Balloon Shop—which is home to many Mylar favorites, and it’s also where Manning keeps enough sale ideas to fill a small truck.
But this small room is just a smattering of the colorful, whimsical and avant-garde on display at these Moorestown mainstays.
Moorestown is rich in family lore, and Manning’s enterprises are no different.
She gave up a career in psychology after graduating from Long Island University to set up shop alongside her dad, Charles Manning, who founded the original Peter Pan Bakery on Chester Avenue in 1954.
"At the time, women were going into nursing, teaching or being housewives," she said. "I didn’t like any of those choices."
The elder Manning, who died in 2005, started whipping out carrot cakes and cinnamon buns at age 15, when he went to live with his sister, who had married a baker. Charles Manning's mother died when he was 3, and his father abandoned the family of six.
The bakery eventually moved to Main Street in 1964, its name having been taken from the green-clad Disney charmer who wouldn’t grow up.
“My mom actually thought it would be a catchy name that the kids would remember,” says Manning, 69, of her mother, Lonore.
The bakery became a Never Never Land for town locals for decades, until people became less interested in cream puffs. Manning says her father’s faithfulness to real butter, white flour and other full-flavored ingredients began to compete with the larger big-box stores, which churned out healthier concoctions for a new clientele requesting more wholesome treats, and sometimes at lower costs.
“We just couldn’t make the same cakes using whole wheat flour or limiting our sugars. It just wasn’t the same,” says Manning, standing in front of the old baker's trays that these days holds rows of floral-designed Vera Bradley bags. Nearby sits one of the original Hobart industrial mixers.
After the bakery was shuttered, Manning expanded Peter Pan Gift Shop, bringing in more fashion and hipper accessories, and she moved T.R. Bell from down the street into its present location.
Manning says she learned a lot from her father, whose humble beginnings in Camden taught him to treat people with kindness and sincerity—traits that can be winning for a small business owner.
“We have wonderful customers that we know by name,” says Manning. “If someone comes to one of our stores in a hurry and buys a gift, we’ll wrap it, tie it with a beautiful grosgrain ribbon, and off they go to the party. The corporate stores won’t do that.”
That noble respect for people is also conveyed in Manning’s employees, many of whom worked for her father back in the bakery days. Sandra Grant, Patricia Pike and Sally Davidson have worked for Peter Pan a combined 80 years, alongside other longtime employees like Carolyn Cresson, Lyn Lennox, Ruth Brown and Sue Affourtit. The staff is rounded out by Ruth Brown, who's manned the monogramming desk the last 10 years, as well as eight part-time workers.
A resident of Moorestown, Manning says she spends almost every day, except Sundays, in her stores.
“I really enjoy my work,” she says. “My father used to say that you should do what you love for 50 weeks of the year. And then, wish you were doing it during the two weeks you’re on vacation.”