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Windows on the past In Lancaster shops, old Yule displays bring in visitors

Lancaster's Central Avenue suffers, just like many other old, suburban retail districts with similar stories.

The storefront row in the heart of the village declined with the advent of strip plazas and malls with roomy parking lots, by altered streetscapes and by bad development choices that seemed like good ideas at the time.

But this Christmas season bestowed an unexpected gift on the few retailers that remain. It came in the form of families -- parents, grandparents and children from all over Western New York who strolled Central Avenue sidewalks by the hundreds.

"Every night since Thanksgiving there's been crowds walking up and down the business district," said Mayor William Cansdale.

What prompted one of the most successful Christmas seasons Lancaster shopkeepers can remember?

A little creative genius and a nostalgic longing for Christmasses past.

Fifty years ago, department store retailers on downtown Buffalo's Main Street drew people in with their display windows featuring Christmas scenes and animated players. The charming holiday sets became an integral part of families' Christmas traditions.

Now, Lancaster has its own. Its success offers hope for other ailing retail districts that were built before the malls and plazas became the retail kings.

"It's not all common sense," said Thomas Kazmierczak, director of the Lancaster Opera House. "You have to go to the heart. You have to be visionary. Nothing in this project has ever been black and white."

Kazmierczak nursed his own ideas about Christmasville in Lancaster while hunting down a number of old animated displays that adorned the windows of the AM&A's department store downtown starting in the 1940s.

He sought the grant money to buy and refurbish the displays. Then it boiled down to hard work. A Tonawanda seamstress remade the old tattered costumes. A West Seneca landscaper helped with the backdrops. The village government got Christmas songs coming out of speakers on the streetlights.

Staffers from the opera house and Salvatore's Italian Gardens pitched in, too, with every little detail from inserting African-American figures into the previously all-white Christmas scenes, to installing the fragile displays in every cleared-out storefront window.

"That whole nostalgia thing -- you can't put words to it," Kazmierczak said. "It just brings back what you missed."

Days after Christmas, carloads of grandparents and parents were seen walking from window to window with children, pointing to the Christmas scenes and reminiscing about the days when they saw similar displays at all the big downtown Buffalo department stores.

Tom and Carol Miller, both seniors from Akron, were astonished at the size of the displays. When they were children and went downtown to see the store windows in the 1950s, the animated figures seemed so much bigger.

"It's a trip back in time," said Tom Miller, 70. "This was high-tech back then."

Sightseers traveled from window to window, watching animated figurines ice skating or hanging stockings by the chimney with care. Most of the figures were old, but some were bought new to fill out the storefront scenes.

Many of the people looking in the windows eventually walked inside the shops, creating store traffic that shop owners hadn't seen in many years.

"I've never had this much foot traffic never," said Betty Aquila, owner of Scarlette's Collectibles and Christmas shop since 1997. "Even back when business was good, there was never this foot traffic. This season has been tremendous."

Alan Kurtzman, whose New York Store has been a fixture in Lancaster since 1929, said it has been a long time since he saw so many people walking through his store, and saw so many people so happy.

"It was great," he said. "Everyone was just in such a wonderful frame of mind."

The Opera House's Kazmierczak wants people to return to the Lancaster business district next Christmas and in the months in between. Discussions are in the works to launch a "summer stock season" with theater and special events such a family-oriented festival themed on "The Wizard of Oz."

He also expects the village to take advantage of Halloween, especially since Lancaster is rumored to be full of paranormal activity.

"We are haunted," he joked of the Opera House.

Given the business district's holiday success, many can't help but hope for a renewal for the retail strip.

"With this, we're hoping more retailers will see we can get people down here, and maybe someone would be interested in opening some other kind of business," said Linda Costa, assistant director for the pera House. "It has to be unique, something the mall doesn't offer."

Kazmierczak added he believes other struggling retail districts can have similar success if shop owners embrace and promote their district's own distinct character.

"You first have to believe in it," he said. "Then you can't sell it short."

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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