The story stretches all the way back to the late 19th century, when the large, very proud Vidler family emigrated from England to the United States, settling originally in Boston, Massachusetts.
Robert was one of the 13 Vidler children, and perhaps the most ambitious. In June of 1930, at the dawn of the Great Depression, just eight months after the market crash, he decided to open a small variety store on Main Street in East Aurora.
Cynical local merchants made bets that Vidler’s folly wouldn’t last six weeks. Suffice it to say, some family members did not consider this a very prudent move, either.
“When Granddad started this business, his older British sisters all said, ‘You’re not going to use the family name,’” Don Vidler recalled. “They said ‘The economy is horrible now and you’re going to go out of business and stain the family name forever’.”
So Robert deferred to his sisters and called the place the Fair 5 & 10, sparing the family name for a time. They still have one of the original signs, upstairs by the candy counter.
Yes, he didn’t ruin the family name, he ennobled it, making it a rich part of Western New York history. Today, 90 years later, Vidler’s 5 & 10 — Robert changed the name in 1946 — is still going strong.
Vidler’s, an enduring community treasure, will hold a belated 90th anniversary celebration Wednesday afternoon, at which they’ll accept a plaque from the Buffalo Small Business Administration as the area’s “Family Owned Small Business of the Year.”
Oh, and Vidler’s was recently given a Trip Advisors 2020 Travelers Choice award.
“Two weeks ago, we found out we made the top 10 of their global listings,” said Don Vidler, the co-owner and unofficial PR man for the store. “We’re right up there with the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty and Buckingham Palace.
“So we had a lot of nice things happening this year,” Don said. “It’s like Murphy’s Law. They all happened in the year of COVID.”
Yeah, the virus was tough. Vidler’s closed on March 20 and didn’t re-open until June 2, with the operative restrictions. They had to lay off 25 staff during the shutdown. Don Vidler said they got some PPP loans, which helped ease matters.
“That was two and a half lost months,” Don said. “It definitely hurt us. I don’t want to minimize it. June and July were slow for us, which we expected. August it started to pick up and September has picked up.”
They lost all those tour groups, which visit from around the country and the world in a normal summer. They also couldn’t hold their anniversary bash, which generally takes place around the June 21 date of the original opening.
“We would have had music, a calliope player, maybe a magician,” Don said. “When we did the 85th, we had a lot of the restaurants in town participating. They had tasting menus in a tent out back. It’s a shame; I had all this 90th anniversary stuff made up.”
But it would take a lot more than a pandemic to break the spirit of Vidler’s 5 & 10. A struggling economy? Robert started it during the Depression. Strife in the world? It survived World War Two.
In fact, it was in 1946, just after the war ended, when Robert Vidler bought the building on Main Street where he’d been renting — it began with just two aisles and about 900 square feet — and finally changed the name to Vidler’s.
“After 15 years, he felt ‘Well, I’m going to make it’,” Don said. “My father (Ed) talked about long hours and sacrifice, how my granddad worked from 8 in the morning ’til 8 or 9 at night. I think my grandmother helped him out originally a little bit, but it wasn’t nearly as big then.”
In 1949, as 9, as as America’s consumer culture began to flourish, Robert’s sons, Bob and Ed, began working in Vidler’s fulltime. The business continued to grow. In 1954, they expanded the first floor and the basement, where they installed a “Toyland” and boasted one of the biggest toy selections around.
“We always laughed growing up, my cousins and myself and my sister (Beverly),” Don said. “Our Christmas toys were always whatever the rejects or broken toys were. I never had a working truck or toy until I got older. But I’m very proud of how the family has persevered over the years.”
It wasn’t always easy. Small family stores were suffering in America as “big box” chains took over. There were two other variety stores on Main Street in East Aurora when W.T. Grants, one of the fastest growing chains in the country, opened in 1960. Both closed within two years of Grant’s arrival.
Vidler’s dug in. For the first time, Robert Sr. began promoting the place and advertising in the newspapers. They survived not by chasing new trends but by staying the same, by emphasizing their peculiar small-time charm.
“When Grants came, it was really tough,” Don said. “But they kept their nose to the grindstone, so to speak. Over the years they were asked about opening up a franchise, but my father always said people would expect an exact duplicate of the store — the old wooden floors and Sandy the Horse, the popcorn machine.
“He said ‘I don’t think we can do it. Stick with what we have. We’ve got plenty to do here’.”
Robert Sr. died in 1969. The brothers, Bob and Ed, were running the show by then. They became famous in Buffalo for their goofy TV commercials, which reflected the sense of quirkiness and fun contained inside those old walls at Vidler’s.
“Really, until the mid-70s we were just the local 5 & 10 in East Aurora,” Don said. “That’s when my dad and uncle started to promote the experience and the old town 5 & 10. We started giving bus tours and getting more regional recognition.”
The store got a boost when Liberty Bank used actor Peter Graves — of “Mission Impossible” fame — in ads that were shot inside Vidler’s.
“That kind of put us on the map,” Don said. “Ostensibly, it was an ad for Liberty Bank, but it seemed more like an ad for the store. People started calling up and asking where it was. My dad said, ‘We should take advantage of this!’”
What’s the reason for the store’s longevity Don said a lot of credit goes to the townspeople. East Aurora, the home of Millard Fillmore and the Arts and Crafts movement, has a strong sense of its own history and an abiding respect for the past, and for shopping local.
“My sister is very active,” Don said. “When Walmart wanted to come to East Aurora, it was a big deal. Bev and a lot of other women banded together and said they didn’t want it. A village slate got elected so Walmart wouldn’t come in. I do think that helped preserve the character.”
There’s plenty of character at Vidler’s. Don said nostalgia is a big part of the place’s appeal. Older men come in to buy the Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone coonskin caps. People remember hula hoops and wax fangs and candy cigarettes and paper dolls.
Vidler’s has the heart of a child. It touches the eternal child inside older folks and stirs the hearts of modern kids. Don remembers a 5-year-old boy bolting up the stairs and telling his mother, “Now we get to the fun part!”
Maybe it was the little boy in him that drew Don back to Vidler’s. He grew up in the store and was the first to ride the motorized horse, Sandy. He worked there as a kid. He remembers kidding his father, saying ‘Didn’t you and Granddad know about child labor laws?”
But Don didn’t stay. In the mid-1970s, he went to Hamilton College. He thought about becoming a sports writer, but business was his calling. After college, he moved to New York City, where he worked in sales and marketing in the textile/apparel industry.
“I thought I’d be in New York City for three years and be a CEO, make my millions and then do something else,” he said. “I was there 30 years, selling fabric and stuff.”
He always kept an eye on the home front, where his cousin, Cliff DeFlyer, and sister Beverly joined the business at Vidler’s. His father said the door was always open, and the idea of coming home to East Aurora appealed to him.
Don and his wife, Maris, a native of the Westchester area, raised two daughters in New York. Once Margaret and Laura were grown, he decided it was time to go back to the store.
“I give my wife full credit,” he said. “We left her hometown and family for mine. We just wanted our children to be settled. I had wanted to come back for awhile. The timing was right. My dad was slowing down. My cousin Cliff and Beverly said they could use help. So it worked out for us.
“I tell people I took a 30-year sabbatical from the business.”
Don came back in 2009, the same year they put up that massive “Vidler on the Roof” statue. “It’s a roadside attraction,” he said. “People constantly take pictures of it. Little kids wave to it on the way to school.”
Soon after Don returned, Ed had a stroke and began to fade. Uncle Bob had moved to Ithaca by that time. Don is grateful for the short time he and his father had running things together. Ed died last year at 90.
Don and Cliff run the show now. Beverley retired a few years back. Vidler’s continues on, its charms unceasing. There’s something reassuring to people about the creaky old wooden floors, the quaint merchandise, the knowledge that you can find just about anything there — and if not, they’ll find it for you.
The old popcorn machine is still there, 10 cents a bag. It’s right next to the scale where you can tell your weight and fortune for a penny — across the room from the ant farms and back scratchers.
The popcorn machine broke down awhile back. Don figured that was the end of it. He put a sign on it that said RIP (Rest In Popcorn). The bad news was posted on Facebook and a furor ensued.
“It had the most hits and likes ever. We had over 100,000 views and comments. I’d say half were, ‘Oh this is funny’. Others were really serious, ‘We got to get it fixed.’”
Luckily, they found a guy who does vending machine work. “They found our exact model and did a masterful reconstruction job,” Don said. “It looks brand-new. It’s still a dime, so we’re good to go on that.”
It’ll always be a dime, and people in East Aurora must figure Vidler’s will always be there. Ninety years and going strong. Imagine when they reach 100. Don, who will turn 65 soon, expects to be there.
“I told my wife, that’s my goal. I want to make the hundredth,” Don said. “I enjoy it. I like coming in to work. It’s kind of cliche, like Andy of Mayberry, but I see a lot of people I know. The main floor, we’re kind of the clearinghouse for gossip in town.
“People remember coming here when they were kids. I laugh, because people still talk about Bob and Ed. They remember the commercials. We figured between the two of them they worked here a combined 120 years.
“Cliff and I joke that we’re the third generation. We’re the kids. So we have a ways to go.”