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Charlotte Walters: The queen of make-believe

The owner of Rogers Park shop Lost Eras dares you to come up with a Halloween costume that she can’t make a reality.

Photograph: Damien Thompson
Charlotte Walters, Lost Eras

“I remember being really scared, at like [age] three or four, of that corner right over there,” says Casey Walters, 22, during a tour of his mom’s costume, theatrical-props and antiques store at West Howard Street and North Rogers Avenue.

All I see are a bunch of light switches and stack after stack of navy blue and gray hats on shelves, which go with the dozens of Civil War costumes hanging on a nearby rack.

“We used to have a big, stuffed bear there with its guts hanging out, and I would peek at it from around the corner and just get totally freaked out,” Casey explains, laughing. His friend and co-worker, Chanel Mahavongsnunt, also 22, interjects: “Hey, even though there’s no bear there anymore, that corner still gives me the heebie-jeebies. I don’t know why.”

Among local and family-owned costume shops in Chicagoland (see sidebar), Lost Eras is in a league of its own, with thousands of one-of-a-kind items packed into a ground-level space it shares with antiques and a massive, spooky basement that seems to extend underneath the entirety of Rogers Park. More than 30 theater companies have tapped its collection for productions; in 2008, it lent choice items from the early ’30s to designers working on Michael Mann’s Chicago-shot gangster flick, Public Enemies. Casey’s mom, owner Charlotte Walters, points to a poster of Johnny Depp on the wall behind her cash register. “You see that handsome guy up there? We dressed him,” she says, grinning.

When Charlotte was a kid, her mother, who opened the space as a “new age shop” selling antiques, cosmetics and clothing in 1969, took her to an artist friend’s cavernous Streeterville apartment. “There were antique, porcelain doll heads hanging from the ceiling, and this lady wore vintage clothing from the ’20s and ’30s,” she says. “I got hooked. The first piece I bought was a red fox coat from the ’40s, a Greta Garbo kind of a thing—for five dollars!”

Walters says it’s much harder to find such bargains today, but her store’s reputation often blazes the trail toward first dibs. When the owner of a four-storefront complex in Hammond, Indiana, died a few years back, her lawyer found a note instructing him to sell the collection to Lost Eras. “I didn’t know her, but she must’ve been in here,” Walters says.

Most of her costume business is in rentals, but Walters will sell items if they’re replaceable. Her favorite customers are those who come in with a specific idea and want her to help make it a reality. “Make sure you tell your readers that we encourage folks to bring their kids,” she says. “We’re not one of those no-kids antique stores. They have fun and get to see things that they wouldn’t normally see.” Case in point: Walters recently scored a set of elegant boy-prince costumes, with brocade knickers and little capes, when an opera company sold off the production for which they were built.

Last fall, Walters outfitted a group of customers invited to the same Halloween party, themed on H.G. Wells’s 1896 sci-fi novel, The Island of Dr. Moreau. “Everyone wanted to be mix-matched, like a cat-human or some sort of genetically twisted penguin,” she remembers, laughing. For another party, a young mom walked in looking to become a voodoo priestess. Casey helped pick out an embroidered gown, ratty wig and bone necklace. “She dressed her baby up as the voodoo doll, painted its face white and gave it a stitch mouth,” she says. “It was awesome.”

Visit Lost Eras Mondays–Saturdays from 10am–6pm at 1511 West Howard Street (773-764-7400).

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