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Halloween transforms commerce in Salem, for good and bad

Posted by Ryan Mooney  October 23, 2012 04:39 PM

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Photo by Ryan Mooney

Like many businesses in Salem, Halloween decorations line the windows at Pamplemousse, a European boutique and market, throughout October, but not all changes are perceptible, and entrepreneurs must find ways to contend with the season.

It's hard to think of one single event on the North Shore that encompasses an entire city the way Halloween takes over Salem. The entire city feels the influence of one day throughout an entire month.

People who live and work in the city often point to heavy traffic - due to the estimated 250,000 visitors Salem has throughout the month-long Haunted Happenings celebration - as the most obvious difference between October and the other 11 months of year, but businesses in the city reflect a sometimes less visible result of Halloween's popularity in Salem.

Places like Salem's 13 Ghosts - a 3-D historical museum where visitors can take a trip through Salem's dark history starting with the city's founding in 1626 - which turns into a 3-D haunted house for October only, is one of the many spooky destinations downtown that relies on Halloween. It's closed for the winter months, and offers limited hours throughout the rest of the year.

But in October, it becomes one of the hottest spots in town, packed with people who drive into Salem from places like Connecticut, New Jersey and New York.

"It's pretty consistent [year-to-year]," said Mark Vandell, owner of Salem's 13 Ghosts. "I don't have exact numbers...but you can tell just by the streets and sales that it's consistent."

The argument can be made that Halloween-themed destinations see the most dramatic upswing in business, but it's not just haunted houses and stores that offer tarot readings and spirit conjuring incense that feel the effects of one of the regions largest tourist attractions.

Anita Blackaby, executive director of the House of Seven Gables - which is not directly Halloween-themed, but is steeped in history and listed on the National Register of Historic Places - says that the property sees about a third of its visitors in October, roughly 30,000 to 35,000 visitors in 31 days. The museum is open all year long.

"We've been very busy during the week...which is great," Blackaby said. "Weekends are always our busiest, but I think so far we're tracking pretty well to last year."

Blackaby regularly interacts with patrons, and says she meets people from all over the world in Salem during Haunted Happenings.

"It's one of the nicest parts of my job," Blackaby said. "[Recently] for example we had a gentleman who was here on his own, and he just didn't look quite like a tourist...I talked to him as he was leaving and it turns out he's an Italian here on business, and he just had some free time and decided to come to Gables, and he was just raving about what a terrific experience he had."

The House of Seven Gables does what many of Salem's businesses do during October, capitalizing on Halloween with special events and programs, and extended hours throughout the month. Even businesses with no direct ties to witches, the supernatural or the city's inspiring history get involved in the festivities.

Pamplemousse, a European boutique and market, offers free mead tastings every weekend in October, giving patrons the rare chance to try the oldest style of wine fermentation in the world. The store also puts on "Harvest Fest" at the Knights of Columbus, a sampling of mead, wine, cider, and craft beers from all over the region, and one of the most popular adult-themed events of the month.

Just a glance at its storefront on the Essex Street Pedestrian Mall: it sends the message of "Happy Halloween," with pumpkins, fall foliage and orange lights lining the windows.

But having the downtown area flooded with tourists is not always a good thing for entrepreneurs. Ann Massey, owner of Rouge Cosmetics on the corner of Lafayette and Derby Street, says the tourist season has two sides to it.

"Our regular customers who are not from Salem tend to stay away from Salem in October because of the traffic," Massey said. "They're afraid to come to Salem because of the lack of parking and the traffic.

"We get a lot more foot traffic, from tourists and people on foot walking around Salem. So a lot of people find out about us from being here on Halloween, so we get quite a bit of visibility."

Massey has attempted to use that visibility to reel in new customers from far away places. At the beginning of the month, she launched the store's first online ordering service, so that people who stop in and see things they like can make purchases later, and avoid carrying around a bag of items while walking the city. The season provides a sort of free marketing, but Massey says her store does not see a big boost in business during October.

Still, she gets involved in the festivities with decorations in the windows, and Halloween make-up applications in store.

"We play into it," Massey said. "We're very much a year-round we don't get the absolute, huge growth out of it that a lot of other Halloween businesses do."

But regardless of what ways, the season changes the face and substance of commerce in the city, and that's just a part of life for business owners operating in the Witch City.

"When you have so many more people coming in, you have to be creative," said Diane Manahan, co-owner of Pamplemousse. "You have to even just change who you are for a period of a month to make it appealing for the people coming into town.

"We have a lot of fun."

Ryan Mooney can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @mooney_ryan.

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