They come out once a year, folding their dragon wings into dungeon-like spaces.
They are contained by dusty sheetrock floors and exposed ceilings. They feature bad lighting, foreboding pipes and the mechanical echoes of the dead and dying. Outside, they are decorated with the garish coloring of a witch’s den, almost as if to beckon, “Come in, my children, come in!”
They are NYC’s Halloween pop-up costume stores, regenerating again in preparation for Oct. 31.
The temporary shops, often in basements or behind once-shabby storefronts, are a holiday savior for last-minute shoppers desperate to find a costume-party top hat. They are free testing grounds for those just browsing, who will later go shopping on Amazon or in their parents’ closet.
Decried by some as an eyesore, beloved by Halloween aficionados and those in urgent need of scar makeup, they continue to exist in the age of online shopping and sky-high commercial rent through quirks in the NYC real estate market — and our undying love for Halloween.
The spookiest storefronts in New York City
The city has a number of permanent costume shops — nice places, specialty boutiques, where you might find carefully embroidered outfits or exquisitely particular props. These are not those stores.
There’s recently been a profusion of hip pop-ups in the e-commerce or fashion space. These are not those droids either. Instead they are big variety shops with any costume you can think of, often carried over from the year before.
Spirit Halloween, which calls itself the largest seasonal Halloween retailer in North America, will open 17 pop-ups in the five boroughs this year. Local retailer Ricky’s — which also sells make-up and beauty products year round — has one open in Brooklyn and one in Manhattan, with plans for two more pop-ups somewhere “in the Harlem area.”
The stores are anywhere where there’s good foot traffic, and wherever there’s a vacant space.
A spokeswoman for Spirit says its real estate team works year round to find locations. Often they’re in places where large longtime tenants just left or closed: this year, Spirit found spaces in former Sports Authority locations around the country, for example.
In NYC, the Halloween pop-ups often find space through “smaller,” more “local” landlords, says Joanne Podell, vice chairwoman at commercial real estate giant Cushman & Wakefield. Convincing landlords to lease space for the brief Halloween season can be a tough sell. But the Halloween pop-ups can grab a few weeks in a still-vacant spot, says Podell.
Or, they can take advantage of the local real estate calendar. Landlords may have new tenants who’ve signed leases but not yet taken “possession” of the space — in the pre-holiday season, such tenants are usually “focused on their retail business, not thinking about building out stores,” Podell says.
So, there’s a small opening for the Spirits of the world to unfurl their orange banners on well-trafficked storefronts, selling the same old SWAT gear, fake moustaches and sexy police uniforms we love to buy year after year.
Enter the pop-up store, if you dare
A visit to one such location in Herald Square offered a quick tour through the biggest pop culture fascinations and fetishes of the past decade or so.
Wedged between a Bank of America and an H&M in a space that was a Modell’s until 2014, an escalator brings you to the still-neatly curated costumery — that is, if you make it past the giant spider which jumps and hisses at those getting off the escalator, via motion sensor technology.
Employees outnumbered shoppers on a visit this week. One temporary worker was still setting up a Cerberus decoration near a window peeking out on a subway entrance. Another said she spends most of her day keeping an eye on the kids who come in and wander around, some of them intent on swiping.
Sure, you can get quick delivery with online shopping, but can you test the heft of your weapon in the dedicated sword section? Take your pick from ninja, fantasy, pirate or royal varieties. Or you could go with bloody axe, axe with holster, intricate axe, skull knife, kitchen knife, and good old “bloody blade.”
There are the Spirit-special “black hood” and “brown cloak” that avoid the trademarked name, if not the look, of the Jedi Order. This year the Suicide Squad and Pokemon gear is front and center, given recent proclivities. Finding Dory takes a little more work.
If you really want a costume of the moment, head to the back of the store, past TVs encased in cardboard supports playing spooky scenes; past rows of R2D2 hats and scream masks. There, you can “Make Halloween Great Again." Female “candidate wigs” are much more prominent than previous years.
Or you can buy a different piece of history, also a work of non-trademark fiction — the “political trucker” hat, made in China. Red, of course.