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In Store: last days for a little shop of horrors

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In the window stands a mannequin wearing Little Red Riding Hood lingerie. Boxes display sets of bad teeth, slashed-wrist and -throat effects, and a sheet of whip scars that particularly ghoulish revelers can apply to their backs before hitting the party circuit. Inside, alien and monster masks hang from the ceiling, including an "open-wide people eater" with a huge mouth and teeth, and a Satan whose holographic eye contains a blood-red skull. Angel wings made from genuine feathers, psychedelic beehive wigs, dismembered arm gags, bleeding-finger candles--the city will lose a precious resource of the weird, wonderful, and grotesque when the Drum closes its doors after more than 40 years.

"Retail's a lot of work, a lot of work," says Carmen Contreras, who co-owns the shop near Clark and Foster with her husband, Rafael. "We would have passed it on to our children, but one's a hairdresser and one's a cop. And with all the strange stuff we have, this isn't the kind of place that just anyone can buy and take over."

When the Contrerases bought the Drum in 1958, it was a gift store and art gallery near the corner of Lincoln and Belmont. Angelo Migliacco, the original owner, was obsessed with the French military, displaying toy soldiers, statues, and drums; the Contrerases still have two life-size soldier dolls standing guard along the inside of the shop's entrance. Originally they tried to focus on the gallery side of the business, but the recession of the late 50s forced them to expand their inventory in hopes of attracting a broader array of customers. They filled their 7,000 square feet with greeting cards, crystal, and oddities like a bronze satire of Rodin's "The Thinker," featuring a monkey sitting atop a stack of books and contemplating a human skull.

"We started selling costumes in 1970," says Carmen, "after our daughter started doing a lot of school plays and we realized that there was a good market out there for costumes year-round. I always liked to sew, so I started cranking out costumes." Eventually they began purchasing outfits from suppliers; rising rents drove them north to Andersonville in 1993, but their two-story, 3,500-square-foot space is still the second largest costume shop in the city. At Halloween a lot of people ask for Dracula capes and nuns' habits, but the Contrerases also offer more outlandish costumes like "Moon Over Hawaii," a hula skirt, bikini, and lei for men, complete with a gigantic plastic butt to flash at people.

"Through the years we've catered to whoever walked in, whether rich or poor, black or Hispanic, gay or straight," she says. "I don't think we've ever had anyone who was prejudiced working for us, and we'd hate to pass this on to somebody else, because we have a reputation. It's hard to find someone we can be sure will cater to everybody."

Rafael Contreras says he wants their stock to live on around town. "We're going to make sure theater groups get a good shot at this stuff with special discounts," he says. "This is the perfect time to stock up for Mardi Gras. We've weathered every recession that's come by in the last 40 years, but we've never taken a real vacation together because we're open seven days a week. We've decided it's time to enjoy our lives now."

The Drum Gift Shoppe will close on December 31--or as soon as it liquidates its stock. The store, located at 5216 N. Clark, is open 10:30 to 9 Monday through Friday, 10:30 to 6 Saturday, and 11:30 to 5 Sunday; call 773-769-5551. --Carl Kozlowski

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): masks and Carmen and Rafael Contrreras photos by Nathan Mandell.

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