Vintage Niche: Retro Block in the City of Tonawanda

By Nancy J. Parisi

Published on

Vintage aesthetics, throwback quality, and classic customer service reign supreme on a stretch along Main Street in the City of Tonawanda. Seven locally-owned and like-minded businesses have banded together, and branded themselves as Retro Block. They collaborate on marketing, co-create annual seasonal events drawing foot traffic, and relish their collective allure.

This business district is walkable and very small town, a great destination for shopping, eating, and discovery. Retro Block is actually two blocks – and covers both sides of Main Street. Cats Like Us, Sweet Heart Pin-Up Photography Studio, Atomic Barber Shop & Salon, The Mulberry Tree, Twin City Deli, Hello Sweets, and Black Sheep Market & Oddities each offer something different, and are one big, fun attraction.

Cats Like Us

Cats Like Us, at the corner of Main and Broad, and owned by married couple Julie Ann and Andrew Davis, is jammed with fashions, accessories, and music of the 1950s. The store features clothing for men and women, and includes estate finds, vintage-inspired, and must-have wardrobe basics like solid-colored shirts, novelty socks, and party dresses. Julie Ann explains that the shop’s name came from the song of the same name by rockabilly band Hillbilly Hellcats who the couple saw perform at a rockabilly convention in Las Vegas.

“We were first,” Julie Ann says of Retro Block, “and then five or six years later Destiny, and then Atomic Barbershop & Salon came.”

Photographer Destiny Rogowski opened Sweet Heart Pin-Up and has made her mark on the photo scene as a studio with themed sets that she meticulously created. Pin-Up, boudoir, and headshots are her specialties and she offers makeup and hairstyling for clients’ sessions, as well as wardrobe, shoes, props, and jewelry perfecting the vintage aesthetic. She found her storefront by accident, she says, searching for a home for her business when she and a friend got lost. The name Retro Block came to her when she overheard a guy who’d just parked his car say out loud as he looked down Main Street, “Just look at this retro block.”

Sweet Heart Pin-Up & The Mulberry Tree

Next door to Sweet Heart Pin Up is Atomic Barber Shop & Salon that, as its name states, caters to barbering and hairstyling for everyone. The welcoming business sports a rockabilly and vintage look and the storefront’s windows are elaborately decorated. The shop is abuzz in salon activity, and conversation. Specialties by the independent stylists include vintage cuts, braiding, up-do’s, fades, dreadlocks, and intense color.

“Everyone who’s part of Retro Block gets along, does their own thing, and has their niche,” master barber Tim Koury says. “Customers love it.”

The Mulberry Tree, owned by Kelly Gromlovits, is a two-story antique shop that’s easy to get lost in amid the furniture, displays of jewelry, curiosities, and housewares. Named for a childhood tree at her grandmother’s home, Kelly opened in 2004 and says most people stop in “to buy a memory, and to reminisce.” She reports that she’s on the radar of movie productions in town and they shop her store for period light fixtures, furniture, and clothing – she spotted one of her former pieces of furniture, a bureau, in “Marshall,” the historical drama that was filmed in Buffalo in 2017.

Atomic Barber Shop, Black Sheep Market, and Twin City Deli

For people who love to eat, Retro Block includes Twin City Deli. Specialty and DIY sandwiches make up the majority of the Twin City menu – all the creations lean towards hefty. Pre-made salads, fresh fruit, and desserts are ready for takeout but there are a few tables for dining inside the deli.

Hello Sweets, neighboring the deli and owned by candy fan extraordinaire Jessica Stevenson, is a destination for all things sugar. Racks, tables, and shelving are full of vintage and hard-to find candies, imported and exotic confections, soda pop from all over, and novelty items. About Retro Block, Jesscia says “We all send customers to each other and we’re all so supportive of each other.”

The newest addition to Retro Bock, Black Sheep Market & Oddities, co-owned by Elena Mileva and Samantha Leigh, carries locally-made jewelry, ceramic art, and other gift items. “We appeal to people with great and dark senses of humor,” Elena says. “We have unique things like bone art, some with real skulls – we also celebrate the underdogs of the world.” Black Sheep sells witchy/bitchy home décor, incense burners, kitchen necessities embellished with tarot deck card images, plenty of f-words, and vintage art objects.

Karen Brocato, who calls herself “Atomic Mom,” sums up the appeal of the Retro Block this way: “I love our area, it has the coolest vibe ever, and every business is special.”

Nancy J. Parisi headshot

Nancy J. Parisi

Nancy is a social documentation photographer based in Buffalo, NY.