BALTIMORE – Stepping into Harriet Berlin’s Artistic Costume and Design Shop is like walking through the “Wardrobe” of C.S. Lewis’ story. Inside, the one-story shop is worlds away from the gray Baltimore industrial alley where it’s hidden. It’s warm and bright and crowded.
Costumes — thousands of them — are everywhere: in the windows, on the walls, on the ceiling. The countertop at the entrance is crammed with accessories, including makeup, glitter pots, costume wax, and the cash register, behind which stands the proprietress.
“You like it here?” she asks. It’s a mischievous question; she’s already guessed the answer.
Behind her, feathers and satin and beads spill from the wall. In the glass case beneath the counter, Swarovsky crystal tiaras glitter beside wild Venetian masks. An embroidered rose Russian tutu — a thousand-dollar work of art — stands in the center of the store, poised high above the racks and racks of costumes.
Berlin’s homegrown shop is a trove for holiday costume treasure-hunters. It’s where mall Santas come to find the best beards and New Year’s revelers buy lavish masquerade masks.
And it’s one of the secrets behind some of Maryland’s — and the country’s — most beautiful Nutcracker ballets.
Local ballet students appearing in the Moscow Ballet’s “Nutcracker” performance at the Mechanic Theater came to Berlin’s shop for handmade hair jewelry and dance shoes. So did performers from Towson University and the Baltimore School of the Arts.
Berlin’s most in-demand costumes, her Nutcracker and Mouse King heads, were shipped to a Texas university for this year’s ballet. Local schools, like the Ballet Academy of Baltimore, have also turned to Berlin for Nutcrackers.
“She’s kind of an institution,” said Elysabeth Catbas of the Academy. “She’s been around a really long time.”
Costuming, in fact, is in Berlin’s blood. Her parents, Max and Edna Krents, opened the family’s first costume and dance shop in Washington, D.C., in 1951. Max Krents made toe shoes by hand. Edna Krents created costumes.
“They saw a need for dance supplies here,” said Ellen East, Harriet Berlin’s sister. “At the time, there was not a big supply south of Philadelphia.”
The Krentses served a glamorous clientele. Max Krents found dance shoes for Carolyn Kennedy, and for Lady Bird Johnson’s children, Berlin says, and outfitted Santas and Easter Bunnies for the White House.
“He never cashed the presidents’ checks,” she says. He kept them as souvenirs of his public service.
Berlin, 50, and East, 48, grew up in the dance shop but went in different directions after high school.
East jumped into the store full time after graduation. For Berlin, the calling wasn’t so clear. After high school, she moved to Baltimore and then New York to study art. She has a master’s in publication design from the Maryland Institute, College of Art, in Baltimore.
Berlin finally came back to the dance shop late in the 1970s to help her sister, who was pregnant with her first child.
“She worked in our store and kind of liked it,” East said.
With their father’s help, Berlin set up a branch of her own in Baltimore in the early 1980s.
“I wasn’t interested in going into my parents’ business,” Berlin said. “Now I eat, drink and breathe it.”
The two shops became separate companies in the 1990s. East’s shop, now in Chevy Chase, is dance-centered. Berlin’s shop sells dance supplies, too, but is known for its costumes.
“(Berlin) makes the masks, I make the shoes,” East says. “We can trade each other for information — what’s the best dance shoe, or what’s the best wig. We both have our own little niches.”
Both sisters say they’ve been encouraged to expand their shops, and to take advantage of Internet commerce. Neither one is interested.
“It’s more rewarding to know the customers personally,” Berlin says. “It’s really fun when we see generations coming in together.”
She points to a young girl feeling through the packets of ballet tights near the counter.
Her mother holds a pair of dance slippers in one hand and her daughter by the other.
“Like her, we’ll probably see her again,” Berlin says. “And maybe her children.”
Berlin has an apparent knack for keeping customers.
There’s a man who’s been coming in every December for 15 years for a Santa suit. He’s the centerpiece of a yearly Christmas party thrown by a woman he met by chance — in Berlin’s store.
“She saw him trying on the suit . . . he made a perfect Santa Claus,” Berlin said. “Now they have an arrangement: she gives him scotch, and he plays Santa.”
Some of her customers never leave. Makeup student Randy Mullins came to the store two years ago as a shopper and stayed on as an employee.
“I just fell in love, I love it here,” the 36-year-old Baltimore native says. He’s sweeping a room in the back where he and Berlin make masks and custom-designed costumes between store chores.
Berlin’s husband, Stanley, is somewhere in the store. It’s easy to lose people in the costume maze.
Harriet Berlin persuaded her husband to join the store full-time last year.
A wood craftsman, Stanley Berlin spent most of his career helping patients at Baltimore’s Union Memorial Hospital regain hand and arm strength through woodworking.
They met through a video-dating service in the 1980s. They’ve been married 17 years.
“Best $70 I ever spent,” Harriet Berlin laughs.
Stanley Berlin’s craftsmanship comes in handy around the store; he’s built devices to help his wife with costume-fitting and displays.
“He’s like my right arm,” Harriet Berlin says.
Berlin has anywhere from four to 10 extra arms helping in the shop at a time, depending on the season. She’s glad to have the help with the store open six days a week, and Berlin likes to have time for her family – the couple has two daughters – and her own crafts.
At that pace, she says, “I think we can make it another 20 years.”