On the Sunday before Halloween, the toothpaste and aspirin aisles are deserted at cozy Mallatt's Pharmacy, 3506 Monroe St. But the costume and makeup aisles are jam-packed with shoppers looking for the perfect bloody scar or fake teeth. As crowded as it is today, owner Mike Flint says it will be even harder to move around the store in the next week. "I'll be at the point where I have to throw merchandise to people."
Flint says that vampire costumes have been big sellers this year, thanks to Twilight and The Vampire Diaries. Gangster merchandise has also been moving fast, perhaps because of the locally filmed Public Enemies. But Flint is most impressed by customers who put together their own creative combinations with no Hollywood tie-in. "I had some people buy chicken heads and blood to make chickens-with-their-heads-cut-off," he says admiringly.
Mallatt's carries a few topical outfits -- Sarah Palin and Kate Gosselin wigs, for example but can't depend on them too much. "We have to order most of our Halloween merchandise in April," Flint says. "If something big happens in September, we won't have time to stock the costume tie-in."
Luckily, Flint was able to scare up some Michael Jackson costumes to meet this year's high demand, even though Jackson's death made headlines way past the April ordering deadline.
Mallatt's specializes in makeup. The shelves are densely packed with hair color, prosthetic adhesive, stage blood and face paint in such colors as "deathly purple" and "cadaver gray." There's a big rack of rotten teeth right next to the pharmacy's candy counter a nicely mordant touch, whether intentional or not.
Mallatt's does big business in costumes on its website, even selling internationally. (Flint recently sent a big order of mustaches to Bulgaria.) Sales are up this year, despite the recession. Or maybe because of it: Flint thinks people are ready to party after a year of belt-tightening.
"I love our small store," he says, surveying the crowded aisles. "But sometimes I wish we had another couple thousand feet."
Space is not a problem at Halloween Express, 6201 Odana Rd. (The east-side location is at 2301 East Springs Dr.) The local franchise of the national chain opens a couple months before Halloween in a cavernous store, filling it with costumes and accessories. Along with the standards -- Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Power Rangers -- Halloween Express sells fun stuff like tombstones and fantasy shoes, including pointy witches' boots and glittery disco heels.
The store also pushes the envelope with extreme gross-out items, from icky masks to bloody plastic body parts in butcher-counter packaging. "God, is that awful!" a mom says as her angelic blond grade-school boy handles a severed arm.
Halloween Express stocks a huge selection of bawdy costumes sexy police officers, prisoners and waitresses along with such novelties as a Giant Boob costume, a Condom costume and a Fart-o-Meter costume. Employee Donna Peters reports that the sexy nurse costumes are massively popular in Madison, perhaps because of the city's sizable health-care system. (Or perhaps just because we're perverted.) The pig noses sold out early to people putting together swine-flu costumes. By contrast, the High School Musical merchandise is dead-on-arrival, Peters says, pointing to a sad-looking 40%-off rack.
As at Mallatt's, Halloween Express' business has been booming. "I don't see a recession here," Peters says.