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Yuletide past is E. Aurora's joyful present

There might be something more valuable to find this Christmas season than a PlayStation 3 or a Tickle Me Elmo Xtreme: a parking space on Main Street in East Aurora.

Not that anyone who owns a business there is complaining.

East Aurora is proof that there is a holiday shopping experience beyond a trip to the Walden Galleria or to Elmwood Avenue stores and boutiques.

The village is steeped in holiday cheer, from carols in the air to Victorian window displays. The only indication that you have not, in fact, driven into a Currier and Ives picture is the lack of snow. But if they figure out a way to get that, they will.

None of this is an accident. East Aurora is what happens when Wal-Mart doesn't. The retail giant had its eye on the adjacent Town of Aurora -- residents and elected officials have kept it away -- but village businesses have benefited mightily from its absence.

The village, meanwhile, claws and fights every development it doesn't want, famously forbidding drive-through restaurants on Main Street and fighting a Starbucks proposal for almost two years before approving the coffeehouse in April.

The result of all of this organized opposition and tight control is visible at this time of year as strolling shoppers frequent the two dozen or so businesses on the village's main drag.

Gary Grote, executive director of the Greater East Aurora Chamber of Commerce, said the village's success owes much to the mix of business on Main Street -- besides the shops, there are restaurants and a movie theater -- and the nearby attractions, such as the Roycroft and the Toy Town museums. It all combines to give visitors what Grote likes to call "an experience," as opposed to a shopping trip.

The village anchor remains Vidler's, the five-and-dime that has been in the same spot on Main Street since 1930.

Friday afternoon, the massive old store was crammed with shoppers, most of whom were smiling as they came in and smiling as they came out. With its narrow aisles, an uneven hardwood floor and an even more uneven layout, plus a marketing strategy that seems to be "We sell literally every kind of product you could ever imagine," it's hard to escape the feeling that you have somehow drifted back to a time when there was a store like this in every community.

"So many people tell me it wouldn't be Christmas without stopping in," said Ed Vidler, who is pushing 80 and still comes to the store every day.

What's the Vidler secret?

"Live the right life, treat people well, and the Lord will provide," Vidler said. Then he leaned in a little closer and added: "But it helps to advertise."

Vivian Coletti, whose Toy Loft has been a few steps from Vidler's for 28 years, is inundated with shoppers at this time of the year. Her shop offers equal parts vintage toys and games for kids and nostalgia for adults who remember shopping in stores like this when they were closer to 1 than 92.

Many of them come from the neighborhood, but plenty make a decision to drive miles.

"My daughter works at M&T in Williamsville, and when we talked the other day she said, 'Mom, I think I've had 10 people tell me today that they were in your shop over the weekend,' " Coletti said.

Julie Gicewicz has operated Kappa Closet, a children's boutique, on Main Street for about a year. She enjoys watching customers come in from other businesses to shop while their kids walk a few doors down to Vidler's.

Of the East Aurora experience, she said: "It's a relaxing way to Christmas shop, if there is such a thing."

e-mail: bandriatch@buffnews.com

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