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Celebrating 80 years of timelessness

The once-common became a commodity. The Vidlers figured that out decades ago.

It was not as if one day a light suddenly went off. It was a gradual realization that each passing year made their variation of the original five-and-dime store -- started in the teeth of the Depression by patriarch Bob Vidler Sr. -- not less relevant, but more. The ticking clock that enhances the value of a fine wine similarly inflated the worth of the small-town business with its stuck-in-time appeal and trademark red-and-white-striped awning.

Styles come and go. Nearly everything and everyone gets outdated. Vidler's, conversely and confoundingly, defies the algorithm. It is as if founder's son Ed Vidler -- 81, lean, white hair scattered like scrub brush across a pale dome -- rubbed a magic lamp and was granted the secret of eternal retail youth. The place is as much a state of mind as it is a store.

While other five-and-dimes vanished from the landscape, victims of the manifest destiny of malls and big-box retailers, Vidler's -- which celebrates its 80th anniversary Saturday -- remains prosperous. Its quirky, extreme mix of throwback and current, yesterday and today, covers a gamut of goods from candy to clothes, from dinner plates to planting pots. An ant colony of items spreads across two floors and 10 rooms in four connected buildings. Far from an anachronism, it has become what every retailer covets and craves: a destination. Visitors come by the busload.

More than any specific product, Vidler's sells sentiment. That, I think, is the secret. The more complex the world becomes, the more that people -- particularly the key baby boomer demographic -- long for a simpler, more nurturing place and time. With its 1950s Main Street feel, Vidler's delivers a piece of that idealized past. From coonskin caps to Necco wafers to balsa wood airplanes to cap guns -- with "Star Wars" lunch boxes for Gen X sentimentalists -- it stocks our collective memory on its shelves. And it does it in East Aurora, a slice of Americana where Ozzie and Harriet would feel right at home.

The store's wood-countered look is both purposeful and circumstantial. The Vidlers resisted the 1960s modern makeover to linoleum floors and Formica-topped counters out of thriftiness, not aesthetics. Or, as a cackling Ed Vidler recently put it, "I'm as tight as a tick."

In a reverse Bass Pro trajectory, multigenerational survivors such as Vidler's gained in appeal as their kind shrunk in number. You don't know what you've got 'til it's almost gone.

As with all survival stories, there is a savviness behind the simplicity. Daughter Bev Vidler, of the flaming red hair, returned 20 years ago from Boston armed with a marketing degree. She and cousin Cliff Deflyer haunt retail trade shows from Atlanta to Vegas. Old-timers Ed and brother Bob Jr. -- now retired -- started their folksy TV ads a quarter-century ago. Bev's brother Don moved back last year from Manhattan with expertise in sales and marketing. The store deals not just in yesterday's classics, but in today's trends. As with Beanie Babies a decade ago, Vidler's this year was first on the block with Silly Bandz.

"It's a balancing act," Bev Vidler said, "between nostalgia and keeping up with the times."

It remains a family affair. Ed Vidler, his kids Bev and Don and their cousin Cliff gathered Wednesday in the downstairs cubbyhole that passes for the store's nerve center. It is Tolstoy's formulaic happy family, no one talking over another, each deferential to elder Ed, all clad in Vidler's trademark red smocks.

"We can sit here," said Ed Vidler, "and make an executive decision in 10 seconds."

Success is no accident when time is on your side.

e-mail: desmonde@buffnews.com

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