5:44 PM EDT, March 27, 2013
You're alone in the far back corner of a basement on Roosevelt Road, the air choked with the dank smell of age. Above you, a Berwyn storefront. Around you, the cluttered office of its owner. What kind of maniac intentionally keeps his desk in the far back corner of a musty basement, removed from any possibility of sunlight, the otherworldly scream of a heating duct the only sound to keep him company?
And that sound, it howls with all the disorienting melodrama of a stormy night on the moors. You steady yourself: It would be so easy to stumble on a stray bone down here. The shelves are lined with skulls and heavy-lidded Frankensteins, roaring Godzillas, a blob of the Blob, a Body Snatcher pod, a Gamera slot machine. Also, boxes, packing tape and bubble wrap — it's almost as if … someone was trying to leave …
Suddenly, a bang. A sickening thud.
The buzz of a power drill.
You've got to get out.
You cross quickly to the wooden stairs, noting an enormous fuzzy spider climbing a magazine rack, a hockey-masked murderer with a machete, a headless torso, a Dracula lawn jockey, a sign reading "Big Brother Is Watching You," clowns with knives, a "Mole People" poster and a bright red shopping basket stuffed with skeletal claws, all grasping upward.
You reach the top of the stairs.
The owner steps out of a storage room, his arms loaded with masonry trowels covered in blood. He drops them into a cardboard box, seals the flaps with heavy tape, then, looking back toward the storage room, says:
"Smells like something died in there."
John Aranza is 39. He has the bald head, round eyeglasses and happy bearing of a dentist who promises he is not going to hurt you, so please, it's no use struggling. He grew up in Bridgeport habitually circling monster movie listings in his TV Guide each week. A decade ago, after a stint as assistant sommelier at Spiaggia on Michigan Avenue — inspired by the long-standing, ramshackle chaos of the Yesterday nostalgia shop near Wrigley Field — he opened Horrorbles, a collectibles shop devoted to all things "boo."
A decade later, on a recent Monday, it's packing day.
Horrorbles is staying in Berwyn but moving 2 miles south, to Stanley Avenue. (The new location opens Monday.) Aranza stands on a ladder, removing metal shelving. "When we opened, nobody understood what this was," he says, "a comic book shop? A poster store?"
He gathers up a stack of 40-year-old issues of Famous Monsters of Filmland, the touchstone horror magazine of the '60s and '70s. "But we've done well," he says, removing a display box from a wall — it holds the dark outlines of two shadow puppets, original props from Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 "Dracula" movie. There's a $2,000 price sticker on the frame.
"Going through some of this stuff again," he says, "I keep wondering if I should be holding on to some of this stuff."
He says he always wanted to surround himself with monster-movie toys, posters, masks. "I like the tactile," he says. But, as well as Horrorbles has done, he adds, "We have never done that much walk-in business."
Well, insecurity breeds hard decisions, he says. He walks into the storage room, emerging with a box of Dracula dolls. "Do you think a store has a soul?" he asks. "I think this store has a soul. I think our thing has always been hospitality. We didn't want to be the horror store playing death metal all day. We wanted to accommodate, to be the store a father brings his son into on a Saturday afternoon."
He stops and looks around. There are stacks of vintage vomit bags, assorted bloody limbs with bones protruding, a row of heads with 12 teeth between them, all waiting to be boxed up and moved. "This will be emotional," he says.
Never mind that next door is Autre Monde Cafe & Spirits, the popular Mediterranean restaurant Aranza opened in 2011, or that Horrorbles was a charming, offbeat neighbor on a strip that features FitzGerald's, the longtime west suburban home of American roots and soul music. Moving from Roosevelt to Stanley, a street with more foot traffic, meant giving up the red-accented bathroom door labeled "Redrum," as well as the 16-seat movie theater he built in the basement. "But sometimes," Aranza says, "one severs a limb to keep the body alive."
He says this without irony.
Matt Wilberg arrives. He has worked at Horrorbles for seven years. He carries two coffees and a box of Dunkin' Donuts. He mumbles, has a goatee, a potbelly and slouch; he bears a striking resemblance to Comic Book Guy on "The Simpsons." "Matt is the Fritz to my Dr. Frankenstein," Aranza says.
No, they say in unison. Igor came later: "Even Mary Shelley," Wilberg says, "she had a Fritz in her novel."
At his feet are two "Jason Goes to Hell" dolls, an alien from "Alien" and a "Creature from the Black Lagoon" head. Aranza continues packing Draculas: "The problem with these Bela Lugosi dolls was that they looked nothing like Bela Lugosi." So Wilberg has been using unsold Lugosis to make Svengoolies, Aranza says, referring to the longtime Chicago TV horror host, a kind of patron saint of Horrorbles. (Until packing began, the store's front window held an intricate replica of Svengoolie's corny-scary TV set.)
Aranza places a pile of empty collectibles boxes at Wilberg's feet and walks to the back of the store, past a menacing, full-size Darth Maul from the "Star Wars" series. He landed Maul, he says, because some guy was being thrown out of his house by his wife, and the guy wanted it to find a home.
Wilberg begins removing alien and vampire busts from the top of a display case. Then, as he works a replica cabin from "Friday the 13th" back into its Styrofoam container, they talk about "box nazis" (collectors who insist on original packaging) and how, weirdly enough, none of the people who played Jason in the "Friday the 13th" movies seems to get along with one other. "They're all about who the 'truer' Jason really is," Aranza says, and Wilberg chuckles.
The front door rattles.
Aranza unlatches the lock, and his other employee, Lisa Manson — "Yes, that's my real name," she says — moves through the store to the front counter. She turns on the computer and cues up some packing-day rockabilly punk. She looks around, stopping on an incongruity: a large Barbie doll, long hair obscuring its face.
"Matt," she says, "where did this My Size Barbie come from?"
"Back room," he says. "We're going to paint her hair black and make her 'The Ring' girl.'"
"That's like the creepiest thing in here right now," she says.
Wilberg is wrestling with a King Kong skull. He's trying to fit it back into its Styrofoam packaging. He's been at it for a few minutes. "This should be a game show," he says, "'Fit the Object in its Original Styrofoam Box.'"
Aranza walks by cradling an alien egg, looks down at Wilberg's dilemma and does that thing people who have spent most of their lives soaking up pop culture do — he riffs. He hears something in the way Wilberg says "box"; it reminds him of the moment Brad Pitt finds Gwyneth Paltrow's head in a box in "Seven." Which results in Aranza doing an anguished Brad Pitt: "What's in the box?! What's in the box?!"
Which spreads like a virus.
Wilberg says: "What's in the box?! What's in the box?!"
Manson says: "What's in the box?! What's in the box?!"
Then she takes the Kong skull from Wilberg and looks at the empty Styrofoam hole for a moment.
"Now watch," Wilberg says, "I've been trying to do this for like five minutes, and you're going to do it in a sec — "
Before he can finish, she has returned King Kong's head to its foam resting place. She walks away.
"Wow," Wilberg says, "scary."
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