Backstory

Backstory: Costume and magic shop owner isn't all laughs all the time

vbridges@newsobserver.comOctober 21, 2013 

  • Advice from LouAnn “Louie” Bowen

    •  Be prepared for Plan B and C because Plan A “ain’t never going to work out.”

    •  Make sure your family is behind you if you are self employed.

    •  Turn your negatives into positives.

— A Hughie & Louie’s Costumes, Magic and More saleswoman with pink hair was busy guiding customers through rows of costumes – from kings’ robes and Scarlett O’Hara dresses to various versions of Rudolf the reindeer and beehive tresses.

So no one noticed when the tears of a professional clown and the owner of Raleigh’s only year-round costume shop started to blur her eyeliner.

“I can keep going, but the thing is, do I want to?,” said LouAnn “Louie” Bowen about her 16-year-old business.

The store is barely breaking even as she fights for customers in the struggling economy, and competes with national Halloween pop-up stores and Internet outlets.

Total spending on Halloween this year is expected to reach $6.9 billion, compared to $8 billion last year, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual spending survey.

People are expected to spend $1.04 billion on children’s costumes, $1.22 billion on adult costumes and $330 million on pet costumes, the survey states.

Overall, average spending on Halloween has increased 54.7 percent since 2005, according to the survey, but Bowen isn’t experiencing those returns.

The days before Halloween are busy for Hughie & Louie’s, but the store at 6017 Glenwood Ave. has been struggling since the summer of 2008, when spending came “just almost ground to a complete halt,” Bowen said.

About 70 percent of the store’s revenue comes from renting and selling elaborate costumes and accessories, along with magic supplies and makeup. The rest of the store’s revenue is linked to its entertainment services, such as stilt walkers, clowns and singing telegrams.

Bowen plays multiple characters that include Cheerilu the clown, Lulubelle Laughingwell, a big-haired country girl in fancy overalls, and “Raleighwood,” a co-host of Rocky Mount’s 98.5 Lundy & Friends morning radio show.

Despite the tears, though, Bowen was full of laughs as she went about her business, entertaining and fussing over customers while carrying around a chihuahua in a black bow tie.

In 1997, Bowen opened Hughie & Louie’s in Concord after buying costume inventory from a closing downtown Raleigh shop.

Bowen opened a second Hughie & Louie’s in Raleigh in 2000 and closed the Concord store after she couldn’t juggle the two stores.

Initially, Hughie & Louie’s provided expanded party services, such as rented bounce houses, cotton candy, popcorn and snow cone machines. People were shelling out $1,000 for parties, she said. Bowen stopped renting bounce houses and gave away the other machines around 2006, after other backyard businesses edged her out of the market, she said.

When people cut their budgets in 2008, Bowen let go of her four employees. This year, she hired a part-time employee.

The media coverage of a high-profile fight with the city of Raleigh over a sign-ordinance in 2011 helped the business, she said. The same year, she did stints at comedy clubs and started working for the radio show to bring in additional revenue.

Hughie & Louie’s is a great place to work, Bowen said, but she struggles with how long she should put her energy into a business that doesn’t deliver a consistent paycheck.

Then she jumps to a joke about how everything is for sale, including the store and her chihuahua.

“You have to pay a lot for him, though,” Bowen said. “My husband, I won’t sell him, but I will rent him out for several hours at a time.”

Bridges: 919-829-8917

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