Actors Attic in Dover preparing for one final encore

From left, Madyson and Carol Parton try on hats at Actors Attic in Dover last week. Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller

DOVER — It’s an irony that hits hard for Susan Betts, co-owner of Actors Attic in Dover.

Mrs. Betts, who co-owns the costume store along with her husband, Mark Fels, said that at a time when face masks are selling at an all-time high due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they are just about the only type of mask that is not sold at Actors Attic.

“I’ve got masks, but they’re the wrong kind,” Mrs. Betts said.

And with local theatrical groups struggling to put on productions during the age of the coronavirus, it has all gotten to be too much to overcome, as Mrs. Betts said that Actors Attic will be going out of business in October after being a local staple for 40 years.

“Everybody thought COVID was going to be about a four-week shutdown, and it kept on going,” Mrs. Betts said. “I kept posting on Facebook that if anybody needed anything and if anybody wanted anything, I’d be here for them.

“We lost all our Easter bunny sales. We lost all our Dover Days sales. We lost everything that is an event, and that is what keeps us going throughout the year. We didn’t sell anything for Fourth of July, and it got canceled.”

She added: “So, the more you sat down and start realizing where your income is coming — and it’s not — it hurts. The embroidery business (a part of the Actors Attic) was doing well through this, but nothing else. Then, you start realizing what you’ve got to pay in rent and utilities and insurance, and none of that goes into hibernation while this happens.”

It all adds up to a going-out-of-business sale that features 30% off costumes and 40% off the rest of the store, including theatrical makeup and other accessories.

Mrs. Betts chalks it all up to unworkable business conditions brought on by the limitations and restrictions that were put into place by the state to try to limit the spread of COVID-19.

“With everyone being at home on the internet, that has definitely destroyed me and any small business,” she said. “People are afraid to come in even when it was a safer bet to come shopping here. You can see (a costume), try it on, and we worked out a way to sanitize (them). I was on blogs with other costumers all over the country and finding out how they were doing things and trying to stay busy.

Nancy Quillen tries on a bonnet during the store closing sale at Actors Attic last Monday afternoon.

“I’d put stuff online, I’d put stuff on Facebook, everything. ‘Hey, if you need anything, call me.’ The one call I got was, ‘What’s your price on something?’ and it’s 30% off, and they’re ‘Oh, it’s cheaper on Amazon,’ but wait a minute, what was their price? It was higher than mine was at 30% off. Thanks for calling.”

Business at Actors Attic relies on holidays like Halloween and local theatrical productions, and as the 2020 calendar rolls along, there is no end in sight to COVID-19.

“We’re making nearly nothing on (the costume and theatrical makeup side), so looking down the road at Halloween, (if) we haven’t gone to the next phase, what’s going to happen?” said Mrs. Betts. “Schools are going to open, and they’re counting on a second wind of COVID, … then there’s Christmas, so you start thinking January and then you start thinking how much rent you have to pay and you can’t do it.”

Actors Attic is far more than just Halloween. It has become part of the entertainment fabric in Dover. It carries theatrical-quality rental and costumes that customers can buy, including costumes for Comic-Con.

A person entering the store can leave as a scary monster, a superhero, a cowboy, a pirate … just about anything he or she can imagine. It also sell accessories, such as bow ties, wigs, hair spray, custom-fit vampire fangs, gloves, stockings, feathers and feather boas, weapons, canes, parasols, masks, noses, clown supplies and glasses.

That is the main reason that longtime customers hate to see the store go. Actors Attic has been in the Tudor Business Park for the past 17 years. It started out in Wyoming where Simply Charming is currently located, moved to a property next to Kirby and Holloway and was also located at Blue Hen Mall and the Dover Mall over the past four decades.

“What do you think, will these look good on me?”, Madyson Parton shows the sunglasses she selected.

Sharon Crossen, a current board member and past president of The Children’s Theatre, Inc., in Dover, is among many who is sad to see the store close up shop.

“For almost 40 years, when theatre folk have needed help with lighting, makeup, a costume or a costume repair, Suzie (Betts) and Actors Attic have been there, not just for Children’s Theatre, Inc., but for every amateur or professional group in need of help,”
Ms. Crossen said. “I don’t know what the theatre community will do without her and her rich supply of costumes, makeup, and props.
“It is going to be a very difficult void to fill, one that will become clearer as the performing arts return to life after COVID-19 and the odd costume, the unique prop, or technical assistance with lighting or sound are needed.”

She added, “One only needed to have pulled up to Actors Attic as any event approached — Halloween, The Governor’s Ball, Dover Days, Fourth of July — to see the diversity of the Dover and Kent County communities Susan, Mark, and their business served.”

The Actors Attic Facebook page was also filled with people who hate to see the store go.

“I am so sorry to read this, have so many good memories hanging out in the store, when it was at the Blue Hen Mall, then to (U.S.) 13 next to Kirby and Holloway, up to the mall and then to your current location, Halloween was always a fun time,” Kathy Briggs Eichler wrote on the store’s Facebook page. “Wishing you well in your next adventure.”

Holly Overmyer wrote, “This is going to be a huge loss to the community, to theater and stage groups.”

“This is an unfortunate turn of events for us,” Mrs. Betts said. “We’re the only costume store that does all this in the state, that has costume rentals, that has lighting equipment, that has everything for theaters.

“We’ve gotten loving support on our Facebook (page) all from longtime customers, and I appreciate every single one of them, but there’s no way that we can personally afford to do this.”

Mrs. Betts said that when she announced she was going to be closing the store, one family came by to visit and had three generations of customers with them. The parents brought their kids and grandchildren into the store to visit. It was a prime example of one of the good things that Mrs. Betts will always remember.

However, the reality is that it takes $8,000-$10,000 a month to keep the store and its employees running, and that is just not possible in today’s business climate.

“I have a lot of inventory. I have a lot of costumes,” said Mrs. Betts. “That costume room is $250,000 in inventory, and then (with costumes, accessories and theatrical makeup), I have probably $350,000 in this, just sitting here. We plan to move the embroidery (part of the store) across the street in Tudor Park.”

She laughed and said she already has had to compete with Spirit of Halloween stores popping up all over Dover for the past decade, and now COVID-19 has proven to be a factor that’s just too much to overcome.

Mrs. Betts said she would love to have one final chance to say goodbye to all her loyal customers.

“I was trying to make my closing date the end of September, but I think it’s going to be clean-out time in October,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could have a giant Halloween party for all of our customers? But how the heck are we going to do that with social distancing and all that other stuff?

“The biggest part of trying to make this decision (to close the store) was all the people that we’re going to hurt. Who would have ever fathomed it would all come down to this? Certainly not me.”