Just beyond the striped awnings of Vidler’s 5&10, a shiny new sign points the way to the arty, organic, hipster district that has quietly grown in the leftover industrial places along the train tracks of Elm Street in East Aurora.
A bar in an ice house with a jukebox and free pool on Tuesdays. Antiques, vintage Fisher-Price toys, mah jong pieces for sale in a gray, wood-frame building that once sold coal. Gummy bear sundaes in a caboose-turned-ice-cream stand. Unconventional bouquets with roses and Queen Anne’s Lace by florists who work in an old firehouse. A gallery of studios for art and yoga in a creamery known long ago for its 3,500-pound, six-foot blocks of cheese.
One by one, old buildings from Elm’s past as a railroad stop have been repurposed and reopened, showcasing the high ceilings, paneled doors, and odd shapes of bygone industry that give them a distinct personality.
They are some of the same ingredients that Howard Zemsky seized on to launch the Larkin warehouse district in Buffalo and what Williamsville is aiming for with its $3.2 million plan for Spring Street by a rambling wood 1811 watermill.
On Elm Street, the neigborhood transformation popped this summer with crate-sized flower boxes and lots of buzz.
“It’s just kind of a neat atmosphere. I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s an artsy kind of a thing,” said Robert Goller, the Aurora town historian, who has a computer copy of the 1886 New York Times story that described the shipment of “monster”-sized cheese from Elm to England. “The positive energy has become contagious.”
The stretch of businesses for walk-ins goes on just about two blocks before Elm tapers off to the commercial, like car repair joints, and ends at a side street. Slow “positive traffic” invites walking and is one of the elusive ingredients that make an old neighborhood work as something arty, new and idiosyncratic, said Preservation Buffalo Niagara’s director Tom Yots.
Elm resembles Buffalo’s Hertel and Elmwood avenues a bit, but it’s smaller and more intimate and with appealing industrial bones like broad open floor plans that allow new configurations, he said. “You begin to notice there’s some kind of pattern to this,” Yots said.
Traces of history, like the faded lettering of cheese maker Richardson & Beebe still on the bricks of the Red Fish Gallery, captures imaginations, too.
“It has to do with a collective memory that gives us a sense of place, that gives us a sense of grounding,” said Kerry Traynor, clinical professor in the department of urban planning at the University at Buffalo. “We still like the grittiness of the industrial urban core.”
Many credit the street’s current renaissance to the Elm Street Bakery, a French-style restaurant of organic and local ingredients that opened two years ago in an old farm and feed supply store. It draws crowds from breakfast to dinner for its croissants from scratch and wood-oven veggie-pesto pizza.
Pair coffee with a $6.25 bacon, egg and kale sandwich or a $2.95 Bostock brioche slice with apricot jam.
While there you might spot Vanessa Frost, who opened the art supply store Muse Jar in a former autobody shop down the street and has a weakness for the bakery’s homemade peanut butter granola bars. or run into the mayor, members of the Jacobs family of Delaware North, the founder of the haunted ghost walk tours and women regulars who meet at the table by the stairs.
Bakery owner Jay DePerno said he came to Elm for the love of a building. An Elma-native, DePerno had always liked the “great lines” of No. 72’s long shape.
He pulled over one day and made a deal to buy what had become a dilapidated office complex and began to start the restaurant he and his wife dreamt up after a trip to Paris.
The DePernos gutted it, made tables from the floorboards, hired Amish carpenters to put up board and batten siding and opened a restaurant supplied by local farms.
“I’m glad to see it is a place where people can come in and hang out,” said DePerno, 49. He’s proud of employing 33 and doesn’t miss his old career selling mutual funds. “It also beats the hell out of being in a board room meeting.”
Next to the bakery is Flowers by Nature, which has been selling its fancy-meets-garden style arrangement out of an old firehouse since 1999. “We can do the run of the mill,” said Char Garden, head floral designer, “but we don’t like it.”
Clients with projects like a dinner party in need of a centerpiece also stop to share the happy and sad stories of their lives. “Everybody drops everything,” Garden said, “and comes to the register and listens.”
Extra traffic from the bakery gives the street nice energy, said owner Cheryl Gicewicz, pausing at the counter. “We’ve got a great thing going at the moment.”
Bruce Crawford remembers coming to the ice house on Elm in the 1950s for ice and frozen meat. Now he works at the bar there that his girlfriend has owned since 1980. The recent fix ups on the street has included the tavern’s own rebuilt bar. “I think our clientele is changing,” he said.
John Venezia picked the district for the first East Aurora Music Fest; in June some 2,500 people came to hear 20 bands at the bars on Elm and the Riley Street extension, as well as the ice rink.
“I don’t want to brag, but it was a great idea,” said Venezia, reminiscing from the bakery’s patio before heading a few doors down for a dinner of Greek wrap at the 1880s-era “Wallenwein Hotel” bar and restaurant.
The festival, which he plans again for next year, added something to Elm’s charm. “It’s the vibe I get from the street,” said Venezia, “the wholesome kind of thing. Creative people.”
When Vanessa Frost, 27, moved back home to East Aurora about a year ago, Elm had a touch of the urban style she left in New York City where she had worked on a movie-making special effects team. Googling for a new start, she found the Red Fish Gallery at No. 21 Elm where owner Alix Martin was attempting to recreate a bungalow artists colony she knew as a girl in Sarasota, Fla. Frost was the kind of tenant owner Martin had been hoping to attract.
Martin’s airy bsecond floor opens to walls full of art. Her landscapes and funky portraits, like the woman with a towering pink updo, hang with paintings by artists who run a community art school in a classroom across from a yoga studio.
Here from a back room with a view of the train tracks, Frost began to paint hot air balloons against blue skies from old family snapshots.
One morning fond memories and the hometown where she feels deep roots converged. After getting coffee from the bakery, she came back, as usual, to chat with Martin.
They decided their picture-perfect village could use a purveyor of art supplies. Heading to Buffalo for, say a tube of white paint, was a bother.
“It’s just one of those things where you talk about it and it clicked, and you just roll with it,” said Frost.
Since she’s been open, the $1.50 woodless colored pencils from the Czech Republic have been hot sellers. She’s getting to know the mechanics who work next door and the guys who water the flower boxes. Friends on the way to the bakery are always swinging by. She’s lining up classes she’ll hold in the fall in the big room where cars were once spray painted. Wine and beer painting night. Life drawing classes. Family Sundays.
The longer she stays, the more she realizes about this place where she grew up. The important things in life, she can get them here.