Upon entering Caufield’s Novelties, I was unsure how the shop would look mid-spring. The last time I’d been there, the storefront had a dozen severed clown heads circulating on a Ferris wheel, looking as if they were maniacally plotting against Halloween shoppers.
This time, the shop window showcased a blue Morphsuit-clad mannequin with basketball sunglasses for March Madness. Caufield’s—though not at near fire-hazard capacity of October—was bustling, the majority of people checking out with horse and jockey paraphernalia, indicative of the upcoming Derby.
“Businesses have to change and adapt with the times," said Tracy Caufield-Johnson, the third-generation co-owner. "In 1920 Kerry Caufield, my grandfather owned a photography studio on South Third Street. He ended up taking $25 left over from an accident settlement after my dad, Keran, had broken his arm, and bought jokes and tricks to put in the waiting room of the photography studio. Soon the jokes and tricks generated more interest than the photography itself, and Caufield’s Novelties was born. Over the next decades we began to stock model and hobby merchandise, then party supplies, and then theatrical costuming”
As other businesses, both local and cooperate, fell under a crashing Depression-era economy, Caufield’s survived. Why? During such a sad time “people need something to laugh about,” Caulfield said. Throughout the following years, the business continued to thrive.
In 1970, Halloween, previously a holiday reserved for small children, boomed for adults. Caufield’s took full advantage of the shift, and began selling wholesale to other independent costume stores. Then came the emergence of pop-up costume shops. They began invading strip malls in the late 1990s— in for two months, attracting customers from permanent local businesses, then disappearing, leaving For Lease signs in their wake. These temporary stores, owned by large corporations, hurt independentlyowned businesses, such as Caufield’s. So in about 2000, Tracy capitalized on opening their first online store, which has been successful and kept Caufield’s going despite the temporary Halloween stores.
Caufield’s Novelties is not just the place for an endless Halloween costume selection in October. It provides costumes for events like community theater and school productions, Santa and Easter Bunny costumes, Mardi Gras beads for local bars, and decorations for St. Patrick’s Day parades. And more pertinent at this time of year, it has become internationally recognized as a supplier of its own brand of horse- and jockey-themed party supplies.
In the 1980s Derby-themed merchandise became licensed under Churchill Downs, but Caulfield's selection of party supplies mostly included paper products and tableware, so Tracy saw the opportunity to once again adapt to the market and branded Caufield’s Novelties supplemental horse-racing-themed products. These items range from party decorations to jockey caps and costumes. These are sold wholesale to party stores in states where horse racing is big, like Florida, New York, and California. Tracy says that they ship hundreds of orders daily, and that Derby-time rivals Halloween as her busiest time of the year.
One of her most rewarding experiences came in the form of an email from a woman in Washington state. A Louisville transplant, this woman wrote to Tracy after receiving a shipment of Caufield’s Novelties horse and jockey party decorations that she was looking to “introduce the fun of horse racing cross-country, one Derby party at a time.” Caufield’s also has recently had a surge of international orders, ranging from locations such as London, England and Sydney, Australia. Even from thousands of miles away, people want to have a bit of the Derby action.
Illustration: Danny Bolin