It's a pre-teen-agers paradise these days at just about every candy store in town. At lunchtime and after school youngsters pile in at such places as Riefner's Stationery Store, 1488 York Avenue (at 78th Street), to snap up its sixth series of Wacky Packages, those phenomenally popular put-downs on advertising.
"Hey, I'll trade you a Baby Runt for a Scare Deal," called one youngster to Libby Bergstein, age 10, as she jubilantly held up "Scare Deal ... Decomposition Notebook for Rotten Students" from a pile of 12 stickers. She had just removed them from her purchase of six Wacky packs, the Topps Chewing Gum, Incorporated come-on that has sent sales of its bubble gum soaring since first issued a year ago.
"Sorry, I have no dupe," Libby replied, obviously delighted that she was one up on her classmate in the frenzied collecting phenomenon that has fourth graders and others) at P.S. 158 in a state of mild hysteria swapping the stick-on cards when they're supposed to be reading.
"It's like collecting antiques," announced Louise Strauss, a sophisticated 10-year-old. Rina Rich agreed. She said she's still trying to complete the fifth series of Wacky Packages, which came out more than six weeks ago and was still available that day across the street at Lamston's for 5 cents a pack, but also is buying what she can of sixth series. "I bought seven packages yesterday," she said, which at 7 cents a package, represented more than half of her 75 cents weekly allowance.
Julie Wolfman, another classmate, said "almost all except the dumb" pupils in her class are into "Wackies." But she didn't think too kindly of those who buy a carton at a time with 48 packs of gum and stickers inside, enabling them to assemble immediately a complete set.
"It's more fun anyway to collect them slowly," she insisted, adding quickly: "I mean, of course, fast enough to be the first completing the series."
"I saw 20 slices of gum going down the [incinerator] chute last night," reported Fred Grayson who said he has forbidden his son, Scott, 10, to chew. The boy, he added, is "the proud owner" of 238 "Wackies."
"He goes crazy when a new series appears," Mr. Grayson said. "He's completed the first five series and is already into the sixth. He put them all out on the floor last night -- that was a sight."
The Graysons are lucky Scott keeps his Wacky packs in stacks. Other parents from here to California have complained that they find stickers affixed to the refrigerator, chests of drawers, the walls, the family car and the television set.
Whatever the success of Wacky Packages may be is being kept a closely guarded secret at Topps, the biggest of the bubble-gum makers (sales last year were an estimated $40-million-plus).
Joel Shorin, the company's president, refused to disclose, either in dollars or percentage, how much of last year's business came from Wacky Packages. All he would say is that it still hasn't surpassed the sales figures of the company's regular line of bubble gum or of its gum-with-baseball-cards packages.
Mr. Shorin insisted that Wacky Packages are not in the Mad magazine tradition, putdowns of the products they look like. He said the 6-to-12-year-olds who buy the gum and stickers do so because "it's real fun."
Among the stickers put out are Clammy (soap), Cut-Rong (wax paper), Fruit of the Tomb (clothing), Sneer (laundry detergent), Peter Pain (peanut butter) and Footsie Roll ("The bar with sole").
Topps also has other entries into what Mr. Shorin calls "the children's entertainment business." They include Kung Fu, cards based on the television series, and Creature Features (monster cards), which are not yet available in New York. He said none of them have produced the sort of impressive successes of Wacky Packages or such earlier ones tied in with Davy Crockett, the Beatles, Elvis Presley and Bat Man.
Mr. Shorin also insisted Topps is not very concerned about the competition, although Crazy Covers, produced since January by the Fleer Corporation of Philadelphia, one of about four major bubble gum producers, is stirring the young to some action.
Some of the children at Riefner's, where the gum is not sold, already claim to have most of the Crazy Covers, which include Slime, Newsleak, U.S. Booze and World Retort, Reader's Disgust and Rolling Stoned.
Rina Rich said she thinks Crazy Covers "are great -- but Fleer gum is terrible, it's too powdery. They should try sour fruit."