By Andy Tarnoff Publisher Published Sep 14, 2004 at 5:43 AM

{image1} Graveyard Records and Collectables, at first glance, looks like a pretty scary place. Even though the Cudahy shop does sell music, it's obvious when you step into the spooky store that the word "graveyard" is the dominant theme in the business title.

Graveyard Records, 4727 S. Packard Ave., is first and foremost a horror collectibles shop, says owner Dave Curtis. It's dimly lit, and realistic props including coffins and rubber decomposing mannequins abound. On the walls hang hundreds of action figures and dolls encompassing every horror genre you could imagine.

But despite its scary façade, Graveyard is a successful business run by a normal guy. By day, Curtis is a big guy with the long goatee, working as a county bus driver. After dark, from 5:30 to 10 p.m. five nights a week, he opens his store to a diverse group of fans of this popular subculture.

"A lot of people like horror movies," says Curtis. "It's like when you take your girlfriend to scary movie, she wants to see it but puts her hands over her eyes."

Other customers are more into the gothic genre or classic movies: the Boris Karloff, Bella Lugosi and Dracula fans.

"Then you have your younger crowd who likes Freddy. But because Universal Studios keeps this (classic) stuff alive on video or DVD, new generations discover it every year."

That said, Curtis doesn't target children as his primary customers, and says some of his most frequent customers are businessmen.

"We keep it to a minimum with kids," says Curtis. "You have to be 17 years old or older, as I would prefer."

The action figures and dolls are especially popular, but Curtis stresses his store isn't Toys 'R Us.

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"I don't want to censor myself in any way. If I want to sell a clown with a knife, I don't want a kid buying that. Kids have to come in with their parents."

Curtis still sells vinyl, CDs and DVDs, but the horror memorabilia is definitely the main focus. Business is good since he moved from Bay View last year, but Curtis actually sells more online through eBay and his Web site. Some of his props fetch more than $500, he says.

"I'm still one of those guys who wants to see the products before I buy it, but there are times when the Web site, itself, does better business than the store does, because we have the entire world looking at us. But we're not just an online business, so if you want to come into the store, our hours are posted (on the site)."

Curtis, 35, also brings in horror movie celebrities for in-store appearances. This Sept. 18, he'll bring in Gunnar Hanson, the original Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hanson will do an autograph signing from 1-7 p.m. The fee is $25, which is reasonable, says Curtis, as it will be a more intimate setting than the average convention.

And though his store is nothing if not dark and scary, he stresses that it's all in good fun, and there's not devil worshipping going on behind closed doors.

"There was a newspaper article written about us that I just laughed my ass off," says Curtis. "He pretty much just slammed us, but it brought in a ton of business."

Yes, he drives a hearse, but he also drops his daughter off to parochial school each morning in it.

Curtis knows he's doing something unique in town, and even his neighbors (a Christian bookstore) have been supportive.

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"When it comes to horror in Milwaukee, we're pretty much one of a kind."

Curtis says that one of the best parts of owning the shop is that his customers eventually become his friends, partly because of the excellent service he provides.

"You do build up a loyalty, especially with pre-orders. Guys come in here and know they can order something without having the price jacked. It's great business."

He also knows he can carry the rare toys when others cannot. "If you go to Spencers' Gifts, the hard-to-find pieces are always gone. Here we always have them. You can buy them on eBay, but you're gonna get into a bidding war."

But Curtis stresses that his job is still a hobby.

"As long as the store makes enough money to be self-sufficient, I'm having fun. I don't pay my mortgage or send my kids to school with this company."

For more information, call them at (414) 486-1751. Graveyard Records and Collectibles' Web site is graveyardrecords.com.

Andy is the founder and co-owner of OnMilwaukee.com. He returned to Milwaukee in 1996 after living on the East Coast for nine years, where he wrote for The Dallas Morning News Washington Bureau and worked in the White House Office of Communications. He was also Associate Editor of The GW Hatchet, his college newspaper at The George Washington University.

Before launching OnMilwaukee.com in 1998 at age 23, he worked in public relations for two Milwaukee firms, most of the time daydreaming about starting his own publication.

Hobbies include running when he finds the time, fixing the rust on his '75 MGB, mowing the lawn at his cottage in the Northwoods, and making an annual pilgrimage to Phoenix for Brewers Spring Training.