WASHINGTON – “I think this could be perfect,” squeals Rip Claassen, the bespectacled costume expert who mans the rental counter downstairs at Backstage, Inc.
Cackles erupt from three customers hurriedly trying to find something for a workplace Halloween party next week.
At least one has already settled on a Tigger costume after trying out the Green Lantern and the Cat in the Hat.
When asked how many stores Demitrich Jones and his coworkers have visited, he smiles and simply says, “First one. Only one.”
“We only deal with this [store],” Jones says. “We’ve been dealing with this spot for three years.”
Unfortunately for Jones, who works just up the street on Barracks Row, Backstage, Inc. is celebrating its last Halloween in D.C. after more than three decades of peddling fake blood, fairy glitter and Skittle-colored wigs.
For owner Sandra Duraes, it’s a bittersweet time. She has been with the store since 1981 when it was in Dupont Circle and mostly sold theater scripts. Now it’s a full-time costume retailer and dancewear outfitter. Scripts are still available, but the store really specializes in transforming people for special occasions and professional performances.
“I always said I was going to be done by 50 because it’s a very intense business,” Duraes says. “One-third of your business is one part of the year and it’s nonstop people, people, people and you can’t please everyone.”
Several dozen customers peruse the aisles as employees flutter between sale racks and fitting rooms. Most of them are wearing costumes: Cat Woman, Bamm Bamm and a belly dancer just to name a few. Even though the retailer is close to bursting with people ready to shell out money for the perfect outfit, Backstage, Inc. can’t afford to stay in its current home.
Like so many other small businesses in the area, it has been priced out of the city.
“As soon as Chipotle moved in, forget it. It’s just moving the rents way up,” Duraes says.
The only way to survive is to relocate, so the costume shop is heading to Virginia – most likely Alexandria – early next year. That gives Duraes one last taste of Halloween mayhem, followed by the Christmas rush. Just don’t mention Big Bird.
“By the time Wednesday rolls around, it’s passe,” she says. “It’s been done.”
This year is all about pop culture, Duraes laments.
“When I started in the business in the ’80s, it was more literature and fairy tale,” she says. “Now it’s whatever happens at the last minute is going to be in.”
Duraes is taking her love of the fantastical and returning to her roots as a theater costume designer when Backstage, Inc. relocates. She will be working from her home studio and handing the reigns over to Claassen, who plans to expand the store. He hopes to become the premier wardrobe stop for both professional theaters and schools.
In the meantime, Duraes has a few tips for those undecideds who have left Halloween costumes to the last minute.
“Walk around the store if you really have no idea and find something that you think you can’t live without,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a mask, about 80 percent of the time it seems to be a wig, and build up your costume around that.”
Keeping a budget in mind also helps, and don’t forget about fit.
“Part of having fun is also being comfortable in what you’re wearing,” she says.
Backstage, Inc. is currently located at 545 8th St. SE Washington, D.C. 20003. Call 202-544-5744 for more information.