SCHENECTADY — If you’re looking for a gown to fit a princess, an inflatable guitar, that favorite dinosaur costume your 8-year-old would love or Harry Potter’s sorting hat, look no further. The Costumer probably has it.
“We have more than 100,000 costumes to rent and tens of thousands of costumes for Halloween, masks, or Christmas in our store at Mohawk Harbor,” said owner Erik Johnsen.
The Costumer also maintains an e-commerce store or fulfillment center for online purchases across the street from its rental location on Barrett Street in Schenectady.
These three locations are a way to consolidate a business that Johnsen and his wife Bonnie purchased in 2016.
Their backgrounds, however, wouldn’t have suggested they’d someday become store owners, let alone owning one connected to the theater. Individually, they grew up in Columbia County but met at the University at Albany.
Relocating to New York City, Erik went into banking with an emphasis on operations and technology; Bonnie did marketing research for a magazine, and later was a special education teacher’s assistant.
But after a 27-year international banking career and as the parents of two sons, the Johnsens decided to come home.
Although neither had any jobs lined up, Erik said he felt his skills were “very portable” because his background had been so heavily focused on logistics and products.
What turned their attention to costumes was seeing how acting in high school productions changed their younger son.
“As stage parents to a son who was heavily into theater, and to see this shy and introverted young man and how it transformed him with confidence and gave him an outlet … that core vision resonated with us,” Erik said.
“We’ve always been passionate about young people finding their path,” she said. “It’s so gratifying as parents to see that and now to be on the other side to provide that message.”
The business they bought is an old one.
Anna White was a noted seamstress in town in 1917 who used her skills as a way to trade for her daughter’s dance lessons. And Schenectady was a stop on the vaudeville circuit, Erik said. As the story goes, Lillian Gish, a famous actress and silent film star, was in town in a production, probably at Proctors, when she had a “malfunction” in one of her costumes. White was called in.
“She saved the day,” Erik said.
White saw an opportunity and started a business to provide costumes as well as make them for the trade and later for anyone looking to dress up. Her reputation for providing unmatched customer service grew.
In 1974, Jack and Kathy Sheehan bought the business and expanded offerings to scholastic theater productions. At the time there was only the store on Barrett Street, where customers could buy or rent costumes or get fitted to have a costume built. In 2008, a superstore was opened in Colonie to expand the store’s offerings.
After the Johnsens bought the business, however, they saw the lease for the Colonie store was coming due in October 2021.
“It became a catalyst for us to find a location elsewhere,” Erik said. “And we had always been strategically looking for another location, and to be in Schenectady and to get the operation under one roof or near itself.”
With the Mohawk Harbor development going full-steam, the Johnsens turned to the Schenectady Metroplex Development Authority, which “helped us determine what might help meet our goals.” Last summer, they moved all the goods from the former Colonie store into the new location, which has 7,500 square feet. The store opened Aug. 1.
The Barrett Street location now is only for rentals and a place where customers can get fitted.
Because there’s a heavy emphasis on scholastic theater offerings, the Johnsens have been diligent in their research as to what they offer.
“We watch the licensing pipeline of new show openings,” he said. “It’s a continuous process. We’re constantly evaluating. We don’t want to go gangbusters on a show that doesn’t work out.”
For instance, they made sure costumes were available for “Beauty and the Beast,” “Something Rotten,” “Frozen,” “Hair” and anything from “Harry Potter,” “Batman” or many of the classics. They can provide different characters’ costumes even in very small or very large sizes and match face masks to the costumes.
“We want to provide Broadway-quality costumes at affordable prices,” Bonnie said. “We work nationally and with a lot of high schools, and want to get the production up. We also ship to accommodate video recordings; we’ve learned how to work with a green screen. We can stagger delivery to allow the show to go on. We are here to listen to our customers.”
On occasion they’ve slightly misjudged the popularity of a show — such as “Sister Act,” which drew only a mild response — so they try to repurpose the nun costumes.
While the store has become a beacon for school theater it still maintains a longstanding relationship with national directors, and counts decades of supplying shows and customers, who have been coming to the store “year after year,” Eric said.
The Costumer has up to 14 people on the theatrical side of the store, including those who launder costumes for long runs and three who design, construct, alter, press and bag new costumes. In all there are 30 employees.
New for the store, however, are its dance offerings: shoes for jazz, tap and ballroom dancers; ballet slippers; leotards; tights; and those cute little skirts ballerinas wear, usually in rehearsals.
“We’re working with 20 local dance schools and that’s continuing to grow,” Bonnie Johnsen said.
The pandemic has affected business to some extent, although last Halloween was “a great success,” Erik said.
“The new store is in a world-class location and is more ‘shoppertainment.’ We feel the location with the casino and hotel lives up perfectly to what we do. We even sponsor Wednesday night family skating [at a nearby rink], where kids can dress up and staff dress up in different costumes or characters,” Erik said.
Bonnie added that they’re also looking into more ways the store can “weave ourselves into the community. Our secret sauce is customer service. We are here to deliver for them.”
Dance competitions might be just one of the activities they one day sponsor.
-Erik and Bonnie Johnsen are the third owners of this 105-year-old business.
-Three locations: Mohawk Harbor (retail); two on Barrett Street (rentals, e-commerce)
-More than 100,000 costumes and related articles for entertainment, school productions, dance and more