Focus On: Party Papers & Costumes
Costume shop in Halloween Capital of the World makes for fun times
After 33 years in the party business while calling the Halloween Capital of the World home, Mary Vander Laan can say she’s seen just about everything. Vander Laan, owner of Party Papers & Costumes in Anoka, Minnesota, started as an employee in the early 1980s under the original owner, when the store was just 700 square feet.
All these years later, the Party Papers & Costumes has grown to 5,000 square feet, including offices and storage areas, and has employed dozens along the way. While it’s been quite a ride, Vander Laan’s tenure is coming to an end, as she has the business up for sale.
She took some time to reflect with Party & Paper Retailer.
PPR: How did you get started in retail?
MV: During my college years I worked in retail as both sales staff and office staff. Later, during the mom years, (I worked) part time retail to keep my career active. Before owning this business, I held public office and find that understanding municipal and state law has been very valuable in knowing that your governments are behind you, furthering economic growth, protecting, and providing services. The state of Minnesota is particularly supportive with many free services for small business.
PPR: What have been some of your favorite jobs?
MV: Some big projects were decorating of tents for the U.S. Open golf tournament, numerous corporate events in downtown St. Paul and Minneapolis hotels and having tent sales for several renaissance fairs. Imagine being in full costume on the “village green,” showing your wares, and a fully armored knight rides up on his battle horse! The belly dancers on the hill who descended into my tent for tribal ware made for great sales and fun.
PPR: What does it mean to be the official Halloween Capital of the World?
MV: This shop is trademarked by the state of Minnesota as “The Halloween Store in the Halloween Capital of the World.” In 1920, the city of Anoka sent a delegation to Washington D.C., and met with a group of congressmen who declared Anoka as the “Halloween Capital of the World.” Since then, each October the town erupts into a celebrating community of all things Halloween. Thirty or more events are held each year, with the highlight being the Grand Day Parade — one of the largest parades in the state of Minnesota. … We often dress in costume for weeks, so our own delight in dressing up is enhanced. With a zombie pub crawl, haunted houses and a month of celebrations we get a good workout. We joke that the town and our staff suffer a few days of Halloween withdrawal in early November.
PPR: What are some of your big themes? Do you offer rentals?
MV: Rentals are only a small part of our sales, but our categories are numerous. Anime, Steampunk, decade parties, school and church activities, dance and burlesque and Renaissance are particularly active. The Minnesota Renaissance Festival — one of the largest in the country — recommends our shop for fine, authentic Renaissance wear. Our staff is versed in historical clothing and assist customers in getting the right look. Suppliers from India, local craftsmen and tailors, and even some mainstream companies give us a good variety of quality, well-constructed clothing. All the years in business have given us good experience in ferreting out value and authenticity. Adding an easy layaway plan and accepting all credit and debit cards makes purchasing appealing for those who have to budget their costume purchases.
PPR: What tends to surprise customers about the store?
MV: To see that we carry a full line of Ben Nye Theatrical Make-up right in the shop and that we have tester boards and skilled staff to help them select product. No need for them to go to the Internet and pay shipping. One of the requirements for employment at PP&C is experience on stage or backstage, so all of us are able to help with questions. Occasionally, we have guest make-up FX artists come in to do demonstrations and face painting for customers on site.
PPR: How big is your staff?
MV: Over all these years I have had the pleasure of hiring, training and mentoring many fine employees and am proud to see their accomplishments. Over the years, we became employers of more than 65 individuals who served our customers while also getting their education or supplementing retirement income. We keep about five part-time staff, and then at Halloween bring in three or four more who help us do our spectacular selling.
PPR: What do you enjoy outside of work?
MV: Besides family time — grandkids are fun — I like to research old movies, particularly foreign-made films. Recently I watched “The Lion in Winter” and was struck with the authentic sets. Several castles were used and the costuming and weaponry was so accurately reproduced.
PPR: What’s been the most fulfilling part of the journey?
MV: Doing costuming to help elementary students represent legendary historical figures is rewarding. Our cut-rate rentals for their products and our delightful conversations with the students make us aware that we are making their learning fun. A Japanese boy dressed as Thomas Jefferson, complete with white colonial wig, stays in my memory as triumphant learning. … Reflecting on 33 years of selling makes me aware it is time to retire, but with fond memories. I have the business for sale, but no firm buyers yet. (It’s a) great opportunity for someone with a passion and knowledge of this field.
At a Glance
WHERE: Party Papers & Costumes, 222 E. Main St., Anoka, Minnesota
STAFF: Five part-time employees most of the year, and closer to 10 around Halloween
WHAT THEY SELL: Costumes, accessories, makeup, balloons and party supplies