Halloween is Eileen Petrillo’s favorite holiday, but that should come as no surprise since she’s owned and operated Characters & Costumes, a costume shop located in Guilford, for about 25 years. After several years of teaching and being a flight attendant, Petrillo decided she wanted to try her hand at starting her own costume shop.
Petrillo’s not alone though, the love of Halloween runs in her family. Her sister owns a costume shop outside of Boston, which helped spur Petrillo into the business. “Characters & Costumes actually started in a room in my house, and then I moved into our basement, so I could have more space,” explains Petrillo. “I made a lot of the costumes, collected them, and soon realized I really wanted to give this a go.”
The entrepreneur rented a trial space for two months and received a positive response, so she decided to get a permanent space. She also enjoyed the idea that she could go home at the end of the day and spend time with her family, something she wasn’t able to do in her previous career as a flight attendant. This year will be her 10th in her current location at 260 River Street. “I love this space,” she shares, looking around at her store, “It’s so bright and airy, I really wanted to stay away from a dark, dingy feel.”
“Our goal at the store is to provide a well-informed experience for those who come shop with us, which makes us different from of some of the larger costume chains,” Petrillo shares. “We are very knowledgeable about history and theater, so we can guide shoppers as they search for the right costume. If someone wants to dress up like a Renaissance character, we know what that would look like, and we can guide them in the right direction.”
Characters & Costumes offers both a regular retail section of costumes, as well as a rental section. “I try to have special, more unique costumes available, particularly in the rental section. As a mom and pop shop, we have the opportunity to focus on quality and uniqueness for our costume selection.”
But Petrillo did not stop after fulfilling her costume shop dream. She also established R.E.A.D amusements with her husband. In fact, the very initials represent her family: Rich (her husband), Eileen, Adam and Devlin (her two sons). “R.E.A.D amusements has been a huge success, we’ve done jobs all over New England, including Corporate jobs and events at Colleges. We’ve done events for over 10,000 people, even one in New York where they closed Park Avenue. We’ve done something for Self Magazine in Central Park, the Travelers Golf tournament, events for Coke and Pepsi, and more locally, for Yale.”
One popular rental for these events is the Moonwalk. “I was actually the second woman in CT to have a Moonwalk available to rent,” Petrillo adds. “A woman came in one day to post an advertisement for one, and I looked at it and thought, ‘I’ve got to get one of those.’”
As far as how the economy will potentially affect her business, Petrillo is optimistic, and rightly so. “Our biggest competition locally closed in the spring, so we’re hoping to see sales increase as a result,” says Nancy Shook, one of the store’s managers for over 15 years. “Of course, the internet has upped the competition for us,” says Petrillo. “But we allow people to try their costumes on, which a lot of shops don’t, and that is something the Internet can’t offer.” Petrillo is however hoping that another snowstorm won’t hit on the holiday. “That was a big blow last year,” she says. “We don’t want that again.”
Petrillo also believes that Halloween is an important holiday. “Halloween appeals to kids and adults. Who doesn’t want to dress up and let their imagination run free? It’s fun and it’s something we don’t get to do everyday.” For that reason, amongst others, Petrillo has confidence that the struggling economy will not take a huge toll on her business.
However, this is not to mean the Petrillo is unaware of the dipping economy and those being affected by it. Petrillo's awareness of those in need spurred her to create a costume collection around the holiday. Characters & Costumes is currently collecting new and gently used costumes to donate to a local shelter. “My sister was doing this up at her shop in Massachusetts, and I thought it was a great idea.”
“In the past, we’ve donated to shelters in New Haven, the Amistad house, and after Katrina, we even sent donations down there one year,” says Petrillo. “This year, we’ll most likely work with the Amistad house, but if we have a lot, we’ll split it amongst several organizations. We make a lot of donations as well from our own store.”
“Donating is easy,” Petrillo explains. “Just bring your gently used or new costumes to the shop in a bag. Label it with what it is and it’s size and you can help someone in need who wants to take part in this fun night of imagination.” The shop will be accepting donations until the 25th of October.
As far as where Eilleen will be on Halloween: “Recovering,” she laughs.