Penny Candy, Calico, And A New Marketing Boss

Life has not been kind to small-town America. Main Streets everywhere, it seems, have died, as old-fashioned shops offering personal service have been put out of business by discount emporiums that have the low prices combined with variety and convenience that folks demand these days.

That's not so true in East Aurora, N.Y., a village of 6,600 people about 20 miles southeast of Buffalo. On Main Street in this bucolic town, just down from the feed store and across from the Art Deco movie theater, is Vidler's 5&10, selling everything from pins to pots to penny candy, just as it has for 63 years. The family-run store, with its original brass cash registers, wood floors, hand-lettered signs, and a scale that gives your weight and fortune for a penny, seems almost frozen in time.

ARTSY-CRAFTSY. Growing up in East Aurora, visits to Vidler's were a treat for me. There was always a welcoming Vidler behind the counter then--and there still is today. The third-generation Vidler at the register is Beverly, my childhood friend and the daughter of second-generation proprietor Edward. Until three years ago, it looked as if Vidler's might not pass on to a third generation. Bev's brother, Donald, left for college and never came back. Today, he's a New York-based marketing manager for the Tencel Div. of Courtaulds Fibers Inc. Bev stepped out from behind the counter at 13 and didn't think she would ever return to work at the store--or East Aurora. After high school, she earned a business degree at Northeastern University and went into marketing at a software company near Boston.

But Bev proved you can go home again. Three years ago, at 37, she'd had enough of the corporate grind. She wanted to run her own show, and Vid-ler's was her best shot. Still, it took soul-searching. "Let's face it, small-town life is not exactly exciting," she says.

Established in 1818, East Aurora, now best-known as corporate home of Fisher-Price and Moog Inc., gained some renown at the turn of the century as a center of the Arts & Crafts movement. Elbert Hubbard, philosopher and author, based his Roycroft Press here. The Roycroft buildings still draw tourists.

Robert S. Vidler Sr., a Wyoming native, came to East Aurora, his bride's home town, in 1930. He soon noticed that people were driving all the way to Buffalo every time they needed a spool of thread. So, even as the Depression was taking hold, he decided to open a store. Local merchants figured he would last six weeks. Because his family didn't want their name associated with a flop, the store at first was called The Fair 5&10. Not until 1946 did he feel confident enough to call it Vidler's.

AISLE OF DREAMS. The store prospered--modestly. Robert Sr. didn't believe in debt, and he passed that conviction on to Ed and his other son, Bob, who also worked in the business. Bev's mother, Ginny, worked in the store, too. Bev and I spent hours there, reading comics and munching on the penny candy that Mrs. Vidler dispensed--to keep us out of trouble.

Back then, the store was only 900 square feet. It stayed small until 1977, when Ed bought the building next door. He candidly admits that the main reason the store has retained the old-fashioned look that now attracts tourists is that the family was too cheap to change it. "We got an estimate in the 1950s to put on a glass front and a big sign, like everyone was doing then--really modernize the place," he says. But the price, $25,000, was way too rich for the Vidler blood. "We just went out and bought a sign for $50."

Fortune struck in 1980, when Buffalo's Liberty Bank, now defunct, wanted to make a TV commercial featuring a longtime business customer. It picked Vid-ler's. For 18 months, prime-time couch potatoes around Buffalo saw actor Peter Graves of Mission: Impossible fame amble through Vidler's in a 60-second spot extolling the bank's old-fashioned style. "Holy smoke, it was like a whole new world," says Ed. "We had an explosion of people." Even now, people come in and say they remember the store from the commercial.

Vidler's went on to make its own TV spots, featuring Ed and Bob--who came back to the store in 1987 and retired a second time last year--in takeoffs on the old Bartles & Jaymes wine-cooler campaign. A big cost for a small store, but it pays off, says Ed. Vidler's now draws people from as far away as Rochester, 55 miles to the northeast.

More than anything, Vidler's remains a beloved institution. Besides providing personal service, the Vidlers labor to keep hard-to-find items in stock. There's a section devoted to oil-lamp parts and a fabric department with what seems like every type of calico ever made (there are a lot of quilters hereabouts). The store now covers 30,000 square feet, including a huge crafts department that has become the biggest profit center. And there's still a counter full of items that cost 5 and 10 .

TRADE-OFFS. Since Beverly's return, there have been more changes, as she brings her big-business experience to bear. Ed has never lived anywhere but East Aurora. He admits that, at 65, he shouldn't be the one picking out fabrics meant to appeal to young women. "The store needed some fresh blood," he says. Still, Bev's ascension has given him pause.

Both Bev and Ed say their working relationship is great, but the differences are pretty obvious between the easy-going, always-ready-to-gab Ed and his more matter-of-fact daughter. "I tend to look at it more as a traditional business than my father," says Bev. She gave up a lot for the chance to run Vidler's--her income dropped by a third, and she traded four weeks of vacation for two, for example. She loves the work but wants a payback. "I'd like to grow the business," she says. She persuaded her father to start accepting credit cards to encourage people to spend more. She also upgraded some of the merchandise and brought in more gift items. "People today see shopping as a form of entertainment," says Bev. "So you have to make the experience fun."

Fun, customers admit, is one reason they keep coming back to Vidler's. There's the popcorn machine, a 10 mechanical horsie ride for the kids, and the Vidlers themselves. "It's got so much character. It's more personal. I love the atmosphere and selection," says Mary Sawabini, an Auroran who dropped in on a fall afternoon to buy material for her daughter's homecoming dress. She could have gone to Kmart, but it wouldn't have been the same. Here, she can chat with Ed, who says: "I love this town. I love this store. I really, really do. I wouldn't want to be doing anything else." And why should he?

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