Bonnie’s, the eccentric costume and party store that has helped define downtown Ventura for the last 30 years, is not a place you would want to be trapped alone after dark. Towering shelves stuffed eerily with masks, wigs, canes, capes, bloodied knives and 6-foot-tall animatronic werewolves rise to the ceiling of what once was an old movie theater. Long, narrow aisles block the light filtering in from Main Street, isolating and disorienting the casual shopper, dissolving into dead-ends. And the sheer volume of stuff can be so overwhelming that two women shopping for ribbon were once locked inside for two hours after closing before they even noticed they were trapped.
Perhaps the opportunity to shop in the spirit of the season is why, 10 days before Halloween, hordes of customers start lining up outside to buy their costumes from what has become known as one of Ventura’s quirkier establishments — and one of its most resilient. Since moving to its current location in the late ’70s, the store that owner Bonnie Mihalic opened as a widow with six children has managed to weather fire, theft, near-bankruptcy and recent competition from glitzy, fly-by-night Halloween stores.
That survival, Mihalic’s daughter and store supervisor Carol Thompson says, is based on Bonnie’s reputation for bargain prices and its convenience as a one-stop shopping location for party planners. Most of the costumes run cheap at $20 to $40, and Mihalic, only half-jokingly, summarizes her business philosophy: “If you have enough crap, they will come.” Her policy to “buy everything” means the shelves literally overflow, cascading with luau supplies, cake decorations, sexy soccer player costumes and fake boobs. The prices remain competitive with Wal-Mart, and its location in downtown ensures a generous amount of foot traffic.
But survival on the scale that Bonnie’s has managed, in the face of nearly biblical challenges, requires what can only be called grit. That quality comes through clearly in Mihalic herself, who opened the store after the death of her husband, a Navy man, in 1965 left her a widow with six young children. In between working for the Oxnard Press Courier and managing the county’s 1960 census, she opened an artificial flower store in Oxnard, that, several incarnations and locations later, became Bonnie’s. The original Oxnard store was closed a decade ago because of excessive shoplifting, and the Ventura Bonnie’s has since emerged as the primary location.
The store has faced its share of challenges, however. The first and most devastating was the 1988 fire that leveled the original building the day before Mother’s Day. Old wiring caused a spark in the attic, quickly engulfing mounds of plastic and paper products and escalating into a five-alarm fire. Although firefighters managed to contain the flames, sparing neighboring stores, Bonnie’s was completely destroyed. Even the bills in the cash register were reduced to neat bundles of ash. But what upset her mother most, Thompson says, was there was no way to notify the customers who had ordered Mother’s Day balloons that their orders had been lost.
The Main Street site remained empty for the next few years while Bonnie’s moved to another location two blocks down. Eventually, Mihalic was able to scrape together enough money to rebuild. But despite the insurance settlement, she says she remains nearly $1 million in debt.
Then came last August, when the fire department arrived again — this time to shut down the store for safety violations. It was pre-Halloween season, the worst time of year to close. Unable to let anyone inside, staff members ran back and forth between the shelves and the front door, exchanging merchandise for cash from eager customers gathered outside. Mihalic used “every penny” of her Social Security savings to pay her employees’ salaries and the rent on the building during the six weeks until they could reopen. By the end of the year, having faced a slow season with only one store open for four weeks, after having bought enough merchandise to stock two stores during the busiest 10 weeks of the year, Bonnie’s was in the hole another $500,000. She very nearly lost the business, Mihalic says.
Despite a history of fiscal tightrope walking, Bonnie’s has managed, somehow, to stay open. And Mihalic, who remarried in 1969 and recently celebrated her 75th birthday, remains hopeful, if not exactly serene, in the face of such challenges. Revenue has increased by $10,000 to $20,000 since the store stopped accepting personal checks. Guards are now stationed outside during the Halloween rush to prevent shoplifting. And Mihalic says her staff, some of whom have been with her for 10 or 15 years, are the best she has ever had.
In discussing them, the inclusiveness and generosity that appear to function as both Mihalic and her store’s guiding principles become clear. Mihalic is a liberal employer, having been known to buy a car for a needy employee and offering advances and loans when necessary. She believes “it’s important to have people be more than they can be, to be the best that they can be.”
That conviction has translated into the insistence that her employees provide equal quality service to their customers. Mihalic stresses, “It doesn’t matter what someone buys.” Her staff treats all their customers with respect, she says, whether that person is a vagrant shopping for a quarter’s worth of merchandise or someone purchasing one of the $500 lawn decorations.
She tells with pride the story of a woman who wanted to buy a Halloween costume but only had $2 to spend. Mihalic helped her find a plastic spiderweb to pin to her shirt and fake cobwebs to spread over her arms. The woman left “gloriously happy.”
For Mihalic, the experience underscored the value of what Bonnie’s offers: an opportunity to step outside the ordinary, if only for a few moments.
“I love what we do. I like having a fun store,” she says. “I think it’s really important. People need a little joy in their lives.”