Going 'Off the Deep End'

October 31, 2004|by JULIE E. GREENE

After 14 years in business, Steve and Sally Colby's business added items this year that might be considered mainstream - on Halloween.

Pirate costumes.

Known for its kitschy items such as plastic pink flamingos, Off the Deep End always has sold items that some people would call tacky, Steve Colby said.

The Internet retailer was doing well the last two years selling pirate accessories such as pirate hats and stylized sterling silver jewelry with a skull and crossbones.


So the Colbys began selling pirate costumes five months ago, in time for people to dress up and say, "Arrrgh - Shiver me timbers" for Halloween.

In addition to expanding product lines, the Colbys are planning to renovate the former R.D. McKee building at 339 W. Antietam St. that they moved their business into two years ago.

A 7,000-square-foot store is expected to open in January or February with a snack bar next to the store in the yellow brick building just west of downtown Hagerstown, Steve Colby said.

The Colbys haven't decided on a theme yet, but are considering a retro, Tiki bar or pirate theme at the snack bar that could offer nonalcoholic tropical drinks.

The 3,000-square-foot garage will be renovated into rental space that vendors or organizations could rent for special events such as exhibits, Steve Colby said.

The renovations will cost $500,000 or more, he said.

For many months, a large sign on the garage bearing the message "Hagerstown Harbor: A Revitalization Project by Off The Deep End" has drawn questions from curious passers-by, which was what it was meant to do, Colby said.

"The joke there is Hagerstown Harbor is there when the storm drains back up," Colby said. "It's the confluence of storm drains."

Internet customers also have inquired about the harbor because the Colbys have sold T-shirts that say "Hagerstown Harbor: Port Royal Trading Co."

"We just wanted to draw attention to the building," Colby said.

That shouldn't be a problem after renovations are complete. Renovation plans include making the building's facade similar to the old Cumberland Valley Railroad Station that was on the corner of Washington and Walnut streets in the mid-1800s, Colby said.

The couple settled on the railroad design because of Hagerstown's railroad heritage, the building's close proximity to the former train station and roundhouse and the realization that original plans to make the building look like a pirate warehouse would be costly and might make the building hard to sell, Colby said.

"Not many people want to buy a pirate warehouse," Colby said.

But apparently plenty want to buy pirate merchandise, which the couple started selling before the movie "Pirates of the Caribbean" came out during the summer of 2003.

"This year, it seemed the pirate theme is really taking off," Colby said. Pirate characters are showing up at Renaissance fairs, he said.

Many of the company's pirate costumes were sold out by mid-October. Colby said he plans on selling pirate costumes year-round as long as he can get them in stock. The costume industry is geared toward Halloween.

The railroad theme will continue inside the store with a train station waiting and freight rooms serving as the store.

The store will allow the company to sell larger dcor items and furniture they cannot sell on the Internet because they are too large to ship.

Like the company's other merchandise, the furniture won't be items found in most stores.

Hawaiian or Polynesian-style rattan furniture that evokes the classic 1940s style and contemporary pieces with primary colors and fun designs are among the furniture styles for sale, said Steve Colby during a phone interview from North Carolina, where he and his wife were shopping for furniture to resell.

For 10 years, the couple operated a Frederick, Md., antique store that specialized in wacky items from the 1940s and 1950s and sold used books. They moved the business to their new Hagerstown home in 1999, but the business quickly outgrew that space.

Colby said there was a fair amount of kitsch such as seashell lamps.

"People would say it's tacky," Colby said. "Our customers laugh at themselves. It was fun. They weren't trying to impress anyone."

The Colbys said sells 1,500 to 2,000 products, including 150 different flamingo items and more than 200 styles of string lights, or what they refer to as "cheesy lights" on their Web site.

Other products include grass skirts, inflatable items, hula dolls and pirate adhesive bandages.

In the last two years, sales almost have doubled each year in volume and revenue, Steve Colby said.

The company ships 100 to 200 packages per day, while its Web sites got 3,000 to 4,000 visitors per day during the summer, Colby said.

Off the Deep End ships throughout the United States and to the Army post office.

The flamingos have been popular with military personnel, Colby said.

Military personnel have sent the company pictures of its flamingos in front of a mess tent or its pirate flags on top of tanks, he said.

One unit placed a fake flamingo atop a 900-foot-tall tower in Camp Bucca, Iraq, Colby said. One of the pictures he received shows pink flamingos in front of a camouflaged tent in a desert.

"Wherever they're serving, they need flamingos," Colby said. "They're knee-deep in dirt and sand. It's fun to have something from home. When everything is sand-colored, it's nice to have color."

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