Buffalo News
Wednesday, January 08, 2003
Section: LIFESTYLES Page: D1

The day after Thanksgiving, Mary Lou Wyrobek got 10 boxes from their places in the closet and the basement, went into the vast room that was once her Aunt Mary's hardware store and reached into one of the old display windows to spread the white satiny cloth.

Wyrobek begins by arranging the wintry scene - an electric sledding hill with plastic sledders that can race for hours and an old white church her Aunt Mary used to use. These pieces go in the window closest to the counter with the cash register that still holds the pennies left behind years after her aunt broke her hip and customers stopped coming. It was 1986 or so when her mother finally closed the family store her grandfather founded in 1922 at 491 Amherst St.For almost 20 years, the glass panes haven't shown off new hinges, keys and locks and the building has been just a house, not a store. For all that time, Wyrobek has been putting a winter village in one window and angels and a creche in another, just as her aunt did for the 30 years she ran the store.

"It would be odd not to," Wyrobek said. "We had everything. What was I supposed to do with it?"

This is the way Wyrobek keeps alive a tradition that is her tribute to the once-prosperous Polish street and to the 21st-century life she intends to keep in a neighborhood that has grown poorer without its old shopkeepers.

Since the late 1950s when the department stores downtown were known for their elaborate windows and Wyrobek was about 5 years old, her aunt set up holiday scenes, leaving a few saws hanging in the background until the village grew and the houses and trees and sleighs took over.

Now Wyrobek unwraps the tissue paper and spends seven hours on each window, arranging skaters, streetlights, shops, a caroling couple with a caroling dog, paper snow men and Santa and presents.

In the second window, the one closer to the Assumption Church the next block up, there are religious things. Angels surround a Nativity set inside a ceramic holder shaped like the onion-like turrets that top Russian Orthodox churches.

While her aunt had been particular about the dates, putting the scenes up after Dec. 8, the Feast of the Assumption, and taking them down after Jan. 6, the Feast of Three Kings, Wyrobek lets the Christmas trees, Santa and the creches stay until the middle of January when the Martin Luther King Day holiday gives her the time off she needs to put it all away.

On this block, between Bush and Howell streets in the Black Rock neighborhood, most everything has changed since the decorating began. There's not a plumber next door anymore. The drapery store has been replaced by a parking lot. The gas station is abandoned and unpainted, not meticulous and clean the way the owners used to keep it.

When the children of the elderly bakers didn't want to run the Kowalkowski Bakery, it closed and the chocolate coconut cake and the paczki jelly doughnuts disappeared.

"People had cars. They could go wherever they wanted," said Wyrobek, who is now 45 and teaches religion at Our Lady of Black Rock School.

She didn't move to the suburbs with all the other people who left the neighborhood because she likes being just five minutes away from a big grocery store and the highway. It would be hard to find a new house with maple floors and wreath designs pressed into the high ceilings as they are in this old house, she said.

Even though fewer people are around to see her place at night, Wyrobek thinks her windows are at their prettiest after she comes home from work and goes inside the old hardware store, which she has turned into a kind of living room with lamps and recliners and a Christmas tree on the long counter.

She flips the switches from behind the windows and a blue spotlight bathes the creche and the angels in dresses of pink, blue and white feathers. At the village, the white church glows, red and green lights appear at the tips of the birch tree branches, the Christmas tree turns blue and pink, the four small skaters spin and twirl on a plastic pond and Santa sits by the fire in a room her brother made from a cardboard box and contact paper.

She likes to see the decorations welcome her when she comes home and she is glad for these pieces so carefully saved by the old hardware generation. But panels block her view from the inside, so on some cold nights she goes out to look at the angels and the village and its center with "Joe's Golf Shop," for her golf-loving father, "CANDY," for her mother and the sweets she liked, and the tiny doorway with "Mroszczak Hardware," the way the sign above her aunt's store used to be.