The phone rings at the House of Make Believe and there's a man on the line, a rather large man, who needs a sailor suit.
The employees know to find Yvonne Bernard, who is 78 and propelling herself on a wooden cane through racks of bell-bottoms and hoop skirts and clown pants.
"I have the ones from the '40s that were blue," Yvonne says when they catch her. "Vintage, maybe in a chief petty officer. How big is he?"
"I think the biggest we have in a chief petty is a 44 chest."
Yvonne is a scuttling directory of knowledge in a store packed with 35 years of costumes, hand-sewn bustles, bowler hats and dinosaur heads. She is open all year, with Santa suits at Christmas, bunny suits at Easter, certainly everything at Halloween.
Yet nowadays, when cheap, sexy costumes in plastic bags reign, the phone rings less.
She subsists on Social Security. Every morning, she runs hot water over her hands to feel her fingers. She goes to the shop and puts reality out of her mind, finding jodhpurs for Amelia Earharts and teeth for vampires and coats for sailors. She tells customers that when they wear one of her costumes, they are not themselves, the world is not the world, and they can be whatever they want if they make believe.
Costume trends change. People mostly stay the same.
Yvonne would like Frank Sinatra's My Way played at her funeral. That's not a joke.
She is small, smaller than you'd think with that voice, with those blue eyes that water when she's sad or indignant. She looks right into your eyes and holds your hand at the palm. Her brows are penciled. Her heart surgery scar peeks from the neck of her floral scrubs. She wears black orthopedic shoes with the toe cut from the left foot. Her sock says, "No Nonsense."
She has had bypass surgery and bladder surgery and a stroke and fibromyalgia. Despite her limitations, she loves clothes, loves transforming. Last time she went to a wedding, she wore Spanx, a snug dress and sequined ballet flats. She was a witch last Halloween, and you better believe not an ugly one.
When Yvonne was little, her mother made her costumes for performances at the Capitol Theatre downtown, dressing her like a harem girl, hanging big bracelets from her ears. Trudi Biondi sewed the old-fashioned way, the difficult way, without a serger device to finish the seams. She made a chicken feed sack into a chic frock with black buttons and pockets. Yvonne wore it to high school and was photographed for the paper's fashion column.
"I never told them it was made out of a feed bag," she said.
When Yvonne's daughter, Bernice, was at Clearwater Central Catholic, Yvonne and Trudi made costumes for the school's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. They went to the St. Vincent de Paul Society and filled bags with clothes. They cut trousers and laced them with starched ribbon until they looked like Shakespearean pumpkin pants. They made it all for $50.
"That really kind of sparked Mom," said Bernice Stoneberg.
By 1978, Yvonne had grown tired of her nursing career. It wasn't about holding hands and looking in eyes anymore. It was about paperwork. Yvonne left nursing and opened a store with her mother, setting up in a tiny house behind McDonald's on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. They had parking for six cars. They called it the House of Make Believe.
They stocked it with clown suits and vintage clothes. Trudi did the sewing and Yvonne applied sequins and gems and went to the library to research historical fashions. They made a dragon costume for the Junior League with pipe cleaner eyelashes. They made mascot heads, bunnies in all different colors. They carried cat costumes and Michael Jackson costumes and Tina Turner costumes and ball gowns and bouffant wigs.
Yvonne's family worked for her, all but one of her 13 grandchildren. After Trudi died, Bernice took over the sewing and Yvonne continued to run things. Once when she caught her grandchildren covering each other with price stickers, she made them take an hour off their timecards.
They moved eventually to 10,000 square feet on Hercules Avenue. They had plenty of parking and five dressing rooms. In 1994, they rented 116 Santa suits three times over. They made costumes for community theaters and high schools, for Hello, Dolly! and My Fair Lady and Funny Girl, cutting deals when people needed help. They outfitted a Beatles cover band, a Kiss cover band, a Let's Make a Deal contestant, a man in a wheelchair who wanted to be the Rolling Stones tongue.
Around 2008, young women kept asking if Halloween costumes came with bustiers. Yvonne told them they were not that kind of store.
The old House of Make Believe on Hercules is empty now.
The new House of Make Believe is sandwiched between a watering hole called the Monkey Bar and a tax collector's office where people take bad driver's license photos and are in no mood to try on a gorilla suit.
"You know what all these cars are out there for?" she says, leaning on her cane. "The Department of Motor Vehicles."
It's the first Halloween since Yvonne had to move the store. It's financial, she says. It's medical. She got sick, had surgery, was out for months. It's the economy. It's the changing culture, the sex, the popup costume stores on every corner. It's her own choices. It's her refusal to compromise values. It's whatever it is.
It's her whole life.
"This is all I have purpose for," she says. "Why I get up in the morning."
She has three dressing rooms now and 6,000 square feet. She has a sewing room in the back where Bernice works, and a station where her grandchildren do special-effects makeup. She has authentic patterns from 1910, bolts of fabric direct from a mill, buttons from Germany that cost $4 apiece.
Custom costumes take time. A mascot can take eight to 10 weeks. A Gasparilla krewe outfit takes two or three weeks. A basic Elvis takes a week. A dramatic Elvis can take a month, but then it can be rented forever. To fill the gaps, they sell a handful of bagged costumes, some $15 Freddy Krueger gloves, some $65 body slings called Morphsuits that are trendy this year.
Yvonne is protective. She asks customers where they're going, trying to discern in what condition the costume will return. Lately, she has been trying to get someone's spirit gum mess out of a zoot suit. When people call and say the prices are high, she can't take it.
"You can't see it. You can't touch it. You can't try it on. How do you know it's too expensive? I will bend over backward for you. But don't put me down. Don't put my employees down."
Bernice, 57, stays ever calm and cheerful. She attempts to put everything in positive terms. She reminds her mother they're still having fun. There's the little boy from the church who asked for an angel outfit. The college student in Tennessee who still gets a Southern belle dress every year.
She uses her grandmother's sewing technique. Trudi failed sewing class in school, Bernice says, not because she didn't know how to sew but because she didn't do it like everyone else. She found a way to trace patterns that saved a yard of fabric.
Bernice always finds the yard.
"We have just enough!" she says. "God gave us just enough."
Little glimmers keep Yvonne going. A man this year requested zombie makeup on the front and back of his bald head. Another guy rented the big yellow bird suit for the Mitt Romney rally in St. Petersburg. People still need what she does. They just need to know she's there.
She gets postcards from old-fashioned costume shops around the country, closing year after year, liquidating their merchandise. Someone has to take the stuff. Someone can use it. Sometimes Yvonne buys it and squeezes it into her racks.
She goes home alone and thumbs through costume catalogs. She does not use the Internet. She watches Turner Classic Movies with a sketch pad. She goes to sleep, and lately the same thing keeps happening.
"I keep dreaming and dreaming."
In her dream, she's at her store. The building is all white on the outside. The inside is pristine, with high ceilings and good lighting. And there are her costumes in all the colors, and it's peaceful. And she walks around the building and makes sure everything has been put away. And once she's satisfied, she turns off the lights and goes home.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857. Follow her on Twitter at @stephhayes.