It’s been a costumed life in downtown Wheeling for Gael and Dan Fincham ever since the couple purchased the inventory once available at Wickham’s on National Road in the Woodsdale neighborhood.
That was 1990, and Gael was 42 then, and her husband was 37 as they opened inside L.S. Goods once situated along Main and Market streets. A few years later, Stages Costume Shop moved to its current location at 1063 Main St., and in the late 1990s the Finchams purchased the building from Jack Mendelson, who owned and operated Imperial Display for several decades. Gael, in fact, worked for Mendelson when she was only 15 years old.
“It has been an absolute joy for me. This is what I love to do. I love to design, I love to sew, and I love to dress people up,” Gael said. “Everybody that walks in here wants to have fun, and I love that. It is hard work; don’t get me wrong, but I want to get up every day because this is my idea of fun.
“And it’s been 26 years, and we’re still here, and we have survived some pretty tough years,” she admitted. “And we’ve survived even with the advent of online sales mainly because we have found ourselves knee-deep in theatre. Those were tough gigs to get, but now we’re living because of the theatre programs and organizations in this year, and they are all a joy to work with.”
For Dan, who met Gael the first time when he was just 17, the costume business has been satisfying and also very amusing.
“That’s because you hear things in a costume shop that you will never hear any other place. And another thing that we really love is when someone comes in with a challenge,” he said. “There are people with some pretty crazy ideas, and that’s when we brainstorm with them, and everyone seems to like that, so that’s why we’ve gone about operating the business the way we have.
“This is really fun because no one comes in here unhappy. If they have come in unhappy, they definitely leave happy because that’s the kind of place this is,” Dan continued. “A customer the other day said to me, ‘I come here for the costumes, but I stay for the fun,’ and I thought that was a great statement because that’s what we try to have every single day.”
Plus, this couple ushered in a new way to operate a costume shop without even realizing it.
“Apparently we changed the way costume rental is done in most places because we didn’t know any better. We just thought everything should be available for the customers to see on their own. But the way most costume shops worked then was they had a counter and the customer would walk up and tell the person what they wanted to be.
“If someone said they wanted to be Elvis, the people at the costume shop would choose the costume they would rent, and that’s what the customer got,” he said. “But it was our thought that we should let them see what is available so they could choose for themselves. After that we saw a lot of other shops change to the wide-open environment like what we offered.”
Now, though, these two dynamos believe the time has arrived to move toward the next stage in their lives, and that is why they are willing to speak with anyone interested in continuing this Wheeling tradition. Although the name of the business has changed since a carnival knife thrower founded it in 1898, interest in costuming in the Upper Ohio Valley has remained surprising strong.
“It is time to turn the reins over to someone else because while we have owned this business for the past 26 years, we’ve both been working since we were 15 years old,” Gael said. “It’s time to enjoy the rest of the days that we have left, and I know that sounds pretty old-sounding, but we do want to do some traveling and several others things that we really haven’t been able to do.
“We want to wake up in the morning and be able to say, ‘Wow it’s really a beautiful day, so why don’t we go to Amish Country, because that’s a place I’ve never visited. Or let’s go camping, or whatever it may be,” she continued. “This is what we wanted to do, and we love it, but we do feel as if the time has arrived to allow the business to continue with someone else.”
The Finchams do hope that someone who has the resources and lives in this valley region will communicate a sincere interest so the business and its inventory can continue adding years to its storied history.
“I believe this business needs someone young with a young face who wants to join in with all of the growth that is now taking place here in downtown Wheeling,” Gael said. “We would love to see it stay in Wheeling although we will consider selling it to someone outside the city if no one here is interested.
“I do want to get the word out to the people of this valley because I want them to know what’s going on as far as our decision is concerned,” she said. “We really, really want it to stay here because of its history here and because it’s lasted this damn long. It’s been here for more than 100 years, and there’s not many businesses here that can say the same.”
Why now? Ironically, their decision was made at this time because of the development currently taking place in the downtown district, including the construction of the Health Plan headquarters within the 1100 block, after operating Stages during the tail-end of an era of decline.
Their own children, 45-year-old Rachel and 43-year-old Gretchen, both moved away once they received their diplomas from Wheeling Park High School.
“And that’s because the mindset of our young people here was ‘Get out as soon as you can,’ but now I am so excited right now for our downtown, and I really love the energy that we have here now,” Gael said. “There are a lot of people moving home, and they are doing things and changing things here. and that’s not been the case for a lot of years. Trust me; I know that to be true, but now people are coming up with great ideas and going after those dreams.
“It’s been a true delight to watch this taking place during past 10 years or so because before that started taking place, it was gloom and doom around here for a lot of years,” she recalled. “And now we have apartments opening up in downtown at the Stone Center and the Boury Lofts. Those developments are going to mean more restaurants and more retail here in the downtown, and we haven’t seen that kind of growth for a very long time.”
Uncle Sam, Batman, Pocahontas, the Easter Bunny, and yes, Santa Claus represent a smidgen of what the Fincham’s two-floors of inventory have to offer, and Gael’s most recent addition is a ringleader costume.
“We really do have an enormous inventory for our customers to choose from, and if we don’t already have what they want, we can make it very quickly,” Dan explained. “It took a while, but now we have gained the trust of the people in the theatre and from the people in this area who come to us not just for Halloween but all year long.
“If I had to guess how many costumes we have today, I would guess about 20,000,” he said. “And that number grows all the time because Gael is always making something new whether or not people have asked for it. It’s what she does, and she’s the best.”
(Photos by Steve Novotney)