These were the first things I heard immediately after entering Vidler’s over the weekend:
“As big as it is, it’s so organized.”
“Have you seen my family? They’re all here. Somewhere.”
“Maybe it’s less crowded upstairs.”
“You’ve really got to keep moving along, don’t you?”
“Hey! They have hockey pucks!”
Just another late November Saturday in the sprawling store whose name brings instant recognition to anyone who has ever been in it, yet defies easy description. It has been a focal point in East Aurora for generations, almost from the moment its doors first swung open in the first half of the Hoover administration.
Today, residents of the village that time and what we think of as progress seem to have forgotten – thank goodness – still navigate its sloping, creaking wooden floors and its impossibly narrow aisles to find everything from greeting cards to Girl Scout uniforms. But the five-and-dime that’s really four buildings that meander half a block on Main Street also is a destination for people looking for something that’s not found on the shelves: memories.
“You can’t duplicate the ambience” is what I think Don Vidler said above the din of shoppers passing in the aisle between the baked goods and the Silly Putty.
If you find that juxtaposition strange, or if you like your shopping experience solitary and tidy, with acres of parking and rows of checkout lines, this is not the place for you. If, however, you like your popcorn machine near your penny candy, floor mats on sale that say “Go away,” CDs promoted as “hard-to-find polka music,” long lines at occasional cash registers and a parade of people saying “Excuse me” as they jostle for position near the lawn gnomes, welcome home.
Don Vidler had his homecoming about three years ago after spending much of his adult life in Manhattan. He is the third generation of Vidlers to help run the family business started by his grandfather Robert S. Vidler Sr. and passed down to his now-retired sons, Edward and Robert Jr., who helped further popularize the store with a series of memorable television commercials in the 1980s.
Oddly for an institution so associated with a family, the name Vidler did not originally appear on the building when Robert Sr. opened it as “The Fair Store” in 1930. According to family lore, helpfully provided on the store website, the elder Vidler was inspired to open his own business after his mother-in-law complained about making the 16-mile drive to Buffalo to buy a spool of thread.
“Robert waited 15 years to rename it as ‘Vidler’s 5 & 10’ – confident now of his success and no longer worried about ‘besmirching’ the family name should he fail!” according to the website.
The current version of Vidler’s is more than 20 times the size of the original, so large that its address is 676-694 Main St. Its most recognizable features for years were the red-and-white awnings that adorn the front of the buildings. That changed in 2010, when a giant statue of a waving, smiling, feet-dangling Ed Vidler was placed on the roof.
As it turns out, the statue is a perfect metaphor for Vidler’s: It is oversized, out of place in the tightly regulated, zoning-conforming “Everything must be just so” village, charming beyond belief and absolutely guaranteed to make you smile.
In fact, about the only thing hard to find at Vidler’s on this seasonably chilly autumn afternoon was an unhappy face.
Allison Parente and Jonah Ribbeck, both 16, made the trip from Lockport. Allison had been here many times, but Jonah was making his first visit.
“There’s a lot of things for everybody in there,” he said while waiting outside for his family.
With him were his grandmother, Christina Zigler, and her sister, Anita Lapertosa, who was visiting from New Jersey for the holiday. Lapertosa said she, too, was amazed at the breadth of items to be had, which reminded her of shopping trips to Woolworth’s in her youth.
Added her sister: “If you can’t find it anywhere else, you know where to find it. You come to Vidler’s.”
The Saturday after Thanksgiving is probably the busiest day of the year at Vidler’s, which is why a regular such as Lisa Hoffman should have known better than to try and get any shopping done.
Then again, why should Saturday have been any different?
“I’m in here probably four or five times week,” she said. “Seriously. Because every little thing you need is here.”
Hoffman, who works at the Elm Street Bakery in the village, recounted the story about the time she once spent searching for a specific kind of cake decoration. Try as she might, she couldn’t find what she was looking for.
“I went everywhere, all through the city, and came back home and said, ‘I’ll just try Vidler’s,’ ” she said. “Lo and behold, they had it.”
Don Vidler said the reason the store seems to have everything is because of product sourcing. Road representatives still come to the store with their wares, but now employees also scour websites to see if there’s something out there that Vidler’s doesn’t have. And if they find it, more often than not, they’ll get it.
“My father always said we can make an executive decision in about 10 seconds,” he said. “There’s not a lot of layers of red tape. If your kid said this is the latest greatest toy that they’re using in Amherst or California or Florida, we’ll … give it a shot and see how it works.”
Vidler’s succeeds because it trades on the familiar, but that doesn’t mean it’s standing still. In just the last couple of months, it added an online store, making it possible for everyone who can’t come to Vidler’s to have Vidler’s come to them. The store also is using social media to great effect, including YouTube, where you can see new TV commercials, with Don as the star. (Check out the one with former Buffalo Bills star Steve Tasker; it’s a hoot).
I figured that Don had been asked just about everything about his store, but given how crowded it was Saturday, I wondered if he knew what the capacity was.
He guessed about 600, but the look on his face suggested that he had never even thought about it before.
Come to think of it, that makes sense. At Vidler’s, the store with everything, there’s always room for more.