Tell me a bit about how you came to own this place?
For a number of years, there was an acquaintance of mine that would come in here, Dr. William Bennett, who was professor emeritus in religion out of Duke University and he taught at UNC also, as I understand it. He had had one absolutely unbelievable fascinating life, and God rest his soul, he’s been gone about almost 20 years now. He would come in here after he retired, he would get his driver, Patrick, to bring him over here and he would kind of stay with us and just hold court here. He had known the fellow that taught me the surplus business many, many years ago.
But at any rate, Dr. Bennett would come in here and I’d be talking to young kids here. When he was a student at Princeton in the 1930s, he lived across the street from and was very close friends with Dr. Einstein. He knew him very, very well. He would tell little ones coming in here, doing a book report or something, he said, on more than one occasion Dr. Einstein told me “sometimes imagination is more important than knowledge, it has to be conceived for how it can be done.” So in my entire 35 years here, we’ve never never, ever thwarted imagination.
Can you describe how this became a costume shop and also reflect on your first Halloween here versus this year’s Halloween?
Okay, it was the fall of 1988. I knew that Halloween was going to be a relatively big business because I knew what my average daily take was going into selling, and then I think it felt like on like, it’s gonna fall this year, like on a Monday or Tuesday night, right? I came in that day working by myself, and on that one day, I sold about nine times what I normally sell on any given day, and I said, ‘Okay, this is gonna be good.’
So, after that, and years to come, I started like, you know, buying up things from the National Endowment for the Arts, all the costumes, and costume companies that were going surplus out of business and other things. We’d go back in the workshop and build a Ghostbusters pack, or whatever. If you look at the Bill Murray Ghostbusters movie, if you look at the ghost packs that they’ve got, they’re all built out of Army and Navy surplus. So we just jumped off with that.
Like I said—if I couldn’t be slightly creative in some way, I would have gone stark raving mad a long time ago.
Where does creativity come in?
I get little ones coming in here doing everything from wax museums to book reports, to anything or everything. My furniture comes in, I buy a lot of that from the State of North Carolina. In the state of North Carolina, when somebody passes away and they do not have a will, or no one claims anything of their estate legally, all of their goods escaped to the state. They have furniture that they auctioned off, and you will get broken pieces that sometimes might take three pieces of a piece of furniture to put together until you’ve got a solid useful piece of something. I sell a lot of that to the student population over the years.
But when I have leftover parts, trying to be creative—if we look back hanging up in the ceiling over there, there’s my Leonardo da Vinci wings made out of broken chairs. So, you know, I tell people this all the time—I’m notorious about repeating myself, so forgive me—there’s a quote by the poet William Butler Yeats, who says, “Why do you do this?” And he says, “Well, it’s a lonely impulsive delight.”
Where else do you source from?
Now, in the back, we’ve got somewhere around 8,000 to 9,000 theater costumes that are government surplus. See I’ve got Army-Navy surplus. I’ve got a state surplus.
What’s your favorite piece that you have here that you know of?
I’ve had everything from Zulu warriors to astronaut suits back there. Z to A to A to Z. Other things that have come down the pipe. I mean, a few years back, I sold an Egyptian sarcophagus in here. Less than two months ago, I sold a 300-year-old suit of armor. It was quite a penny.
Where did you source that?
That came from a family in Spain. I went to one of the big surplus shows that was held in Nevada, where a lot of dealers gathered. There was this one family in Spain that had been literally making arms and armor in this one business. In other words, if there’s a reproduction suit of armor in a Chateau or castle in Europe, and some sort of other stage weapon we’re looking at, this family has probably done it.
It’s 18 gauge cold roll steel, it’s made the exact same way it would have been made in the 13th century. Engineers at this company–one of the reasons I fell in love with them–told me the story that back in 1968, there were six NASA engineers down in Florida that were working on the suit. So they knew that Neil Armstrong and the astronauts were on the moon. Now for some particular reason, they could not get the elbow of the suit that they were on the moon to articulate where it would not lock up. To be as simple as it was, it was a critical problem. Because if it locked up with the big backpack on, and the doors and lunar limb being so small, they could not get back in the limb, they’d be marooned on the moon and die! This was six NASA engineers working on this trying to figure it out, but they couldn’t. They couldn’t make it work, no matter what they tried to come up with.
One of them got to study manuscripts from this company that I did business with in Spain, who has been making suits of armor for hundreds of years. They flew to Spain and talked to the engineers of this company, they sold them the articulation of the elbow joint. The articulation of elbow movement in a 15th and 16th-century suit of armor, that’s the exact design in the elbow joint that went to the moon in 1969, a 300-year-old design because modern engineers couldn’t figure out how to make it work. It was just, you know, critically thinking that not everything we think in this world is new and improved and not everything is old and lousy.
What’s different for Halloween this year?
Well, I’m really, I’m really low on camouflage, right? Because of things being just the way they are. So we’re trying to fix people up whatever they want and the like. You always try to check the media and what’s big in the movies at this particular time of the year or whatnot, and see what people are going to costume with. I’m wondering what the Top Gun thing is going to do this year. Otherwise, I’m just kind of playing it by ear.
Do you have a favorite costume you’ve helped create?
One that always sticks with me is an acquaintance of mine. So he’s got this little Dachshund puppy with him right when it comes in and he says, you have to help me, the dog is like a six-week-old puppy. He says, “you have to help me, the dog has separation anxiety, I cannot leave him at home but I want to go out on Halloween. If I leave him home, he will tear the place apart, what can we do?” I said, “Ravi, we’ll fix it up.”
So we put Ravi in the white pants and a white shirt back and we went over and got one of those little paper soda hats, right? So he’s got that outfit on. And then we took one of those—see that beige-looking thing right down there was like made of straw? If you split that open, it folds out. We took and split one of those open and took some of that red and yellow bunting I’ve got over there and made a bed inside of that and it looked exactly like a hot dog. So he kept the puppy and walked around all night long as a hot dog vendor.
There’s other costumes that people have come in ask for. I know cute little kids that come in doing wax museums. I love those when they have to do a particular historical character. I had had a bunch of these—you ever seen those lights that were round like this, you press on them, you know, and they light up? I don’t know what they call them. But I had gotten a bunch of those in, not knowing how to get rid of these things, [but] It just came to me, these kids doing the wax museum. What I’d tell them to do– they’re supposed to stand perfectly still during the wax museum and then somebody comes up and ask a question, then you have to give the spiel–so I talked the little kids into taking all of those and put them in front of them and everybody would come up and then like step on that light and start doing their spiel.
Those little guys just thought that was neater than sliced bread.
A condensed version of this interview will run in the November 2 INDY Week print paper.
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