Within two blocks from each other on Main Street in Louisville, Kentucky, the world’s two largest bats are competing for attention. One is a 120-foot-tall baseball bat leaned up against the side of the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory—the other is an enormous vampire bat, hanging upside down from the side of a centuries-old brick building, home to Caufield’s Novelty.
Celebrating its 99th birthday this year, Caufield’s Novelty is a Louisville staple known for its magic tricks, jokes, and costumes. Enter the building and you’ll find a wall of wigs, mannequins dressed in a hodgepodge of costume pieces, and the store’s famous Dungeon—a room entirely devoted to Halloween-related paraphernalia. “People like to call it the ‘scary room,’” says Tracy Caufield, co-owner of Caufield’s for the past three decades (alongside her brother Kerry) and granddaughter of the original owner.
In the age of big name party stores and next-day shipping, small businesses like Caufield’s are struggling to keep up—even with their own Amazon account and online retail shop. To defray costs, Caufield’s is selling their bat-adorned building, which was once the second Coca-Cola bottling facility in the world. Caufield’s has been here before; the current location is the third in the business’ lifetime. Even though Caufield’s Novelty will soon close its doors on West Main Street, the Caufield family isn’t planning to shutter their business anytime soon.
In 1920, Keran S. Caufield, Sr. started a photography studio on South 3rd Street in downtown Louisville. “Photography studios were like video stores during their boom in the 1980s,” Tracy says. “It was kind of the same thing for photography in the early 1900s, because photography was a relatively new thing.”
Shortly after opening the store, his son, Keran Jr., was hit by a car. The young boy survived, and the family received an insurance settlement. After Caufield Sr. paid for the hospital bills, he had $15 left—worth approximately $200 today—and decided to use that money to buy magic tricks and jokes to entertain customers at his studio. When visitors started becoming more interested in the tricks and jokes than the photo studio, the family got out of the photography business and changed the company’s name to Caufield’s Novelty.
During the past 99 years, Caufield’s has evolved several times. When it first debuted as a novelty hub, the store was dedicated to tricks, jokes, models, and hobbies. Over time, the market for hobby activities decreased, so the Caufield family phased out their hobby stock. But their business model hasn’t changed that much over a century. “One thing that has stayed constant has been the tricks, jokes, and magic,” Tracy says. “We’ve carried those since inception even when we’ve made changes over the years.”
In the late 1960s, Halloween was no longer just for kids; adults wanted in on the spooky festivities. “Up until that time, it was more of a children’s holiday,” Tracy says. “When the adults started having parties, we started carrying more and more costumes, theatrical masks, and makeup.” The Halloween sales took off, and by the 1970s, Caufield’s Novelty moved to a bigger location on Market Street to dedicate a portion of their business to wholesale distribution. Caufield’s specifically worked to provide products for small, independent costume shops across the country, who “couldn’t reach the big manufacturers independently.”
In 1987, Caufield’s had to move locations once again to make way for the expanded Kentucky International Convention Center. That move led them to the current location, on West Main Street, which they have occupied continuously for 32 years.
Though the store is known for its magic tricks, it is perhaps even better known for launching the careers of two world-famous magicians, Lance Burton and Mac King. Burton is a Las Vegas magician who performed more than 15,000 shows for more than five million people before ending his 31-year Vegas run. King, who is currently in residency in Las Vegas, performs an average of 10 shows a week. Both men started their careers as magic demonstrators at Caufield’s Novelty. Tracy was only a child when the two magicians worked in the store, but she remembers watching them perform, in awe of their tricks and skills.
Caufield’s used to welcome Louisville native Muhammad Ali as one of their regular patrons. Ali loved magic for most of his life—he even had two personal magicians to entertain him and train him in their craft. He began to come to Caufield’s more and more at the end of his life, “especially when his Parkinson’s began to get worse,” Tracy says. “He couldn’t communicate as well with people, so he would do magic tricks.”
Though Caufield’s has hosted and elevated many celebrities, Tracy says her favorite memories are simply from interacting with customers. “Pretty much on a weekly basis someone will come in and say, ‘I came to your store as a child and now I’m bringing my grandkids in. It brought us so many memories over the years,’” she says. “We’ve been able to bring smiles to our community for so many years.”
Dungeons and corporate dragons
In the 1990s, Caufield’s Novelty began selling products online. But, as big retailers like Amazon and dedicated party store chains began to dominate the market, Caufield’s saw orders decline. According to Tracy, the business is facing three major hurdles: Online retailers and chains are undercutting small businesses, the majority of their customers are out-of-town visitors, and the current sales are not sufficient enough to maintain the Main Street location.
“At one point in time, people would come in and say, ‘I’m going to a party and I’m looking for a costume. Will you help me?’ And we would take them around the store, help them find a costume, a mask, and a wig, and they would leave happy,” Tracy says. “Now people often come in with a printout and say, ‘This is what I want, in this size, and this is what I want to pay.’ And if you don’t have that exact thing, they’re just going to turn around and order it online—that is, if you even get them in the store to begin with.”
Caufield’s Novelty is looking to other independent costume shops in Louisville and Nashville who have successfully downsized from a large warehouse to a small store. Because they haven’t yet sold the current storefront, Tracy doesn’t know where their next location will be. Even though it’s a store dedicated to novelties, Caufield’s hopes to carry some of the fan favorites along with them to their new location—like the Dungeon.
As for whether or not the giant bat is for sale, Tracy says, “It’s become something of a landmark here. So, it’s negotiable.”