Master of Disguises: 15,000 Costumes For Sale Or Rent In Plainville

PLAINVILLE — For someone who stumbled into the costume shop business, Harvey Ricard sure has a heck of a stock.

From the parking lot, Connecticut Stage Supply looks like a modest house converted into a commercial space, but once inside, you go back and back and back and back. The building has 25,000 square feet of space on two floors, and the company also has two warehouses, each with 5,000 square feet.

Connecticut Stage Supply has more than 15,000 costumes. When he first opened 26 years ago, Ricard didn’t have one.

That’s because he started with stage lighting, which itself was an offshoot of the original business he bought: a TV repair shop.

“The first VCR I sold cost $895,” he remembered. For two years, he did car phone installations, which cost $750 for a phone that cost $1,000.

“Nothing lasts forever, you know,” he said.

He’s been around long enough to remember when Halloween was mostly a time for children to dress up and gorge themselves on chocolate. Now, he has just one small room of children’s costumes, and walls and walls of women’s costumes, both standard and plus sizes. There’s a fetching fraulein, a sexy firefighter, a sexy policewoman, a foxy flapper, Princess Leia, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and on and on. Flappers are hot this year, he said — it’s spillover from “The Great Gatsby” movie.

Halloween has become an excuse to party for adults, he says. And the disguises give them a chance to let their hair down.

“If you get drunk at a party, that’s not you doing it, that’s the character,” he said.

About half of the costume revenue at the store is from rentals — some ensembles rent for more than $100 — and half is from sales. He sells everything from the kinds of costumes you can buy in a pop-up Halloween store to the professional quality pieces. “Some people want to buy a Chevrolet, some people want to buy a Mercedes,” he said.

The lower-end costumes that didn’t sell last year are half-price now, most selling for $25 to $30.

October is phenomenally busy, especially the last two weeks of the month. Where normally, they are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, this time of year they stay open until 9 p.m., and open Sundays as well.

He will do 10 to 20 times the typical costume revenue in October, but how good or bad the season isn’t significant enough to alter the whole year’s sales. October’s not just about costumes, it’s also about props. This year, he’s doing a restaurant decoration job, and last year, he did a Halloween-themed wedding in Bristol, where he decorated the hall and all 200 guests rented costumes from him.

Two years ago the freak October snowstorm wrecked the season, but his annual sales still grew a little compared with the year before. The business, where he and his wife work full time, employs four part-time workers and did about $2 million in sales in 2012. It sees a modest increase every year, he said.

He is looking forward to a good Halloween this year — two of the spaces that hosted pop-up stores in nearby strip malls have been rented to long-term tenants: a music store and a store where everything is priced below $5.

He has faced competition for the past decade from pop-up shops, but changes in the retail market are helping him, too — people find him through Internet searches. Susan Longo of Somers came with her boyfriend, Cory Twiss, to rent a couple’s costume for the party they plan to host. She learned of the Plainville store through Google.

Last year they bought Alice in Wonderland-themed costumes from a pop-up store.

“The quality is not the same,” she said. The couple shopped early, unlike most.

“We were afraid the selection was going to be down to nothing,” she said. “They’re going to have costumes up to the night of!”

In fact, Ricard said with barely disguised irritation, many women come in and try on 10 costumes a week or so ahead of time, but rush back in the day of the party because they couldn’t decide on the first visit. He said their attitude then is: “Give me anything, I’ve got a party in a half-hour!”

For this reason, he suggests women bring a friend to help them choose. “People are very critical of themselves,” he said.

He doesn’t go to costume parties, though he’d be sure to impress. It would feel too much like work. But his voice softens as he talks about how he used to dress up as a character, such as Barney, to visit the children’s cancer ward.

“I miss doing that. I used to play Santa Claus, too. You feel like a God,” he said. “It’s a good feeling to see kids happy.”

He said talking about it made him think he might start visiting in costume again.

Ricard was not born to be an entrepreneur. He originally thought he’d be an actor, and was an English major and theater minor at UConn. One of his professors told him: “You’re not that good an actor, but you’re a good carpenter,” so he enrolled in the technical theater master’s program.

He has longtime relationships with many local theater departments and companies, and cuts them deals on packages of props, lighting, sets and costumes, but he hates it when individuals try to haggle.

He mentioned a time when a woman looked at a $12.95 wig, and asked, “Will you take $10 for it?”

“Do you go into Wal-Mart and do that?” he asked. “Why would you do that to me?”

Connecticut Stage Supply, at 459 East St., Plainville, is usually open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays, but is open extended hours and Sundays through Halloween. The phone is 860-747-1232.

Story By Mara Lee, Hartford Courant; Video By Jim Altman, Fox CT

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