By Maria Asimopoulos
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Harriet Berlin, the owner of Artistic Costumes and Dance Fashions, walked through the shop until she arrived at the boxes gathered by the front door. She found a giant mask of a dog’s head and put it on, chuckling through the mesh and guessing that it probably wouldn’t get too hot underneath.
Elaborate hats and masks hang from the ceiling, and blank faces stare back from the busts sporting wigs that sit atop racks throughout the store. The rest of the Halloween shop is adorned with rows of racks carrying costumes and accessories of all different types, everything from flapper outfits to fairy costumes.
With about 2,000 costume rentals, it is a collection big enough to rival the selection of mainstream Halloween chains—and it’s not even fully stocked yet. Open boxes sit by the entrance in the process of being unpacked for the start of the spooky season.
Artistic Costumes and Dance Fashions, located at 1304 Goucher Blvd. in Towson, has supplied locals with dance supplies and costumes since 1981, and every year Berlin has to prepare for the high volume of customers that do their Halloween shopping there.
“During Halloween, we’re swamped. It’s like mass chaos, because we’re a really big store for that,” Berlin, 68, said. “We’re not like a pop-up shop, we’re always here.”
Customer traffic ramps up around the end of the first week of October, and the last two weeks before the holiday are the busiest. It’s around this time of year that Berlin hires more help, increasing from three employees to seven.
The added traffic is also why Artistic is technically two stores: the dance shop on the left and the costume shop on the right, both accessible via their own front door.
“It was like a double whammy with the back to school, because everybody’s getting their things for dance class, and then Halloween comes right behind it. She had this one store so we had to pack up all the dance and switch it around to Halloween,” said employee Kathy Cochran, 58. “But now that she has the shop next door, it really helps to be able to have the costumes over there and the dance here.”
Berlin opened the shop when she was 30 and has been outfitting people with costumes ever since, including some noteworthy actors and athletes, and even Teddy Kennedy and his wife.
“I always liked it when the Ravens used to come in. I did a lot of their quarterbacks,” Berlin said, smiling at the memory. “Ben Vereen came in for tap shoes. He was really nice, and when he came in he did a little tap dance for the customers and signed autographs. It was really fun.”
Racks stand in the far corner from the entrance, stuffed densely with the shop’s selection of rental costumes whose vibrant colors and detailed embroidery make them pop against the white walls. The rest are packaged and hanging from hooks or on display.
Demand for Avengers costumes and sexy costumes has risen over the years, and Berlin said the shop outfits more adults than children.
“It could be a little bit of childhood in everybody, or just wanting to be creative and play a different role,” Cochran said. “Just being able to be somebody different.”
Artistic stocks up on costumes for Halloween, but there are costumes for purchase and rental year-round, mostly for people in plays or shooting films. When they aren’t selling those, staff are in the dance shop, fitting little girls with leotards or helping parents pick out tap shoes.
Berlin and Cochran took their time helping Geovani Blair, a man shopping for new shoes for his daughter. Berlin bent down to dig around in a box of new stock with him, and after rummaging around she emerged victorious with the right size.
“Ideally, it’s better to try it in the store,” Blair said, to which Berlin agreed, saying that many costumers come in after being disappointed with the fit of online purchases.
“I like this,” Blair said. “You have a lot going on here. The price is good.”
Berlin’s parents started the first Artistic Costumes and Dance Fashions in Washington, D.C., in 1951, the year Berlin was born.
“I had worked about 10 years at my mom and dad’s store in the D.C. area,” Berlin said. “What’s really interesting, when I was younger and I’d work at my parents’ store, all these generations would come in, and my dad would know just what to do all the time and was really creative. My mother, too.”
She studied at Maryland Institute College of Art and Parsons School of Design, and she worked as an artist doing newspaper and fashion illustrations. With a background in dance and visual art, she decided to open up her own branch of the store in Towson in 1981.
“We used to have lines out the door,” she said. “My family was in the costume business like 70 years ago when there was no Internet. They came to the store. The whole way people shop has changed.”
Online retail has affected the volume of customers the shop regularly has. Berlin noticed the shift in the last few years—but the shop still has plenty of regulars and long-time visitors, she said.
“We’re very fortunate in this day where everybody orders online and there’s not a whole lot of loyalty, we still have a lot of loyal customers,” Berlin said. “Now every day someone comes in and says, ‘Oh, I shopped here when I was a little girl. This is my daughter now.’ So it’s very heartwarming.”
Artistic’s dance shop has theatrical makeup, toe shoes, tap shoes, ballet shoes, and a large assortment of masks available for purchase, among other accessories and clothing.
Back in the costume shop, she’s stocking up on flapper and 1920s era costumes in anticipation of 20s themed New Year’s Eve celebrations in addition to the Halloween supplies. Flapper costumes are among the first items that greet customers when they enter—those, and the gray-skinned statue of a witch standing by the door.
“I always feel satisfied because luckily, we’re in a business where people are happy. They like to dress up, and Halloween’s the one time of the year when they dress up,” Berlin said. “I’ll continue working here as long as God lets me.”