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.