The two are living in the greater Hudson Valley area, and running a local gift store that sells (among other things) Cowan’s antique, designer furniture pieces while also displaying Ausiello’s prized collection of Smurf memorabilia — a childhood obsession that’s held emotional weight for the New Jersey native.
Ausiello, 46, describes their time in the store with such affection. Cowan happens to be in the Smurf room, showing a customer one of the hundreds of thousands of Smurfs in the space, each “tastefully displayed” within museum-quality cabinets. Nearby, clear jellybean-like dispensers filled with identical Smurf figurines await for the purchase. And Cowan — who initially scoffed at Ausiello’s love of Smurfs — has, three decades into their relationship, finally become a “Smurf Expert” all his own.
After closing up for the night, the two make their way “down the quiet, twinkling street” together, off to celebrate another Christmas with one another.
But, sadly, it’s all just a dream. Because after an 11-month battle with a rare and brutal form of cancer, Cowan died in February 2015 at the age of 43. And 13 years after the two met and fell in love, Ausiello is now alone.
Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies recounts that love and loss, in a touching and tender tale filled with humor and hope. The hardcover edition was released last September and quickly became a best-seller, now currently in its fourth printing. A paperback edition arrives Sept. 18.
The success has kept coming from Ausiello from there. Last December, Jim Parsons’ That’s Wonderful Productions optioned the title for a feature film adaptation, with Parsons attached to play Ausiello. And then J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot came calling, teaming with Ausiello to develop a half-hour dramedy about his childhood in small-town New Jersey — a childhood that prominently featured that aforementioned Smurf collection.
Somewhere in there, Ausiello found time to check another item off his bucket list.
He went back to that longtime dream of creating a part store, part museum Smurf shrine. And on Tuesday, after seven months of work and a lot of teasing on social media, Ausiello finally unveiled The Blue Store: a spectacular, Smurftastic space in his Los Angeles home that’s very much a dream realized.
Below, Ausiello tells PEOPLE about the project — from its biggest challenges, to its most treasured item.
What made you want to make this Smurf room into a reality?
I got tired of dreaming about it. And I no longer had any excuse to put it off. The biggest obstacle had always been space — as a New Yorker I never had much of it. So when I got my place in L.A. last year, I finally had more than just a living room and a bedroom. I had TWO bedrooms and a dining room and a living room and, most importantly, an entire garage.
What was the biggest challenge to executing this dream?
Not having Kit here. He listened to me blather on about this pipe dream for more than a decade, so it was hard, emotionally, to do this without him. And it was tough from a practical standpoint, too. Kit would’ve insisted on being the project’s lead contractor, designer and vintage furniture-gatherer. And every decision he’d make would’ve been impeccable. All I’d have to worry about is where to put the Smurfs.
During my first meeting with my incredibly patient designer, Darra Bishop, she was showing me catalogs filled with light fixtures and doorknobs and paint colors and floor tiles and I just started bawling. I would always defer to Kit on that stuff. Now I had to make the decisions myself and through the filter of, ‘What would Kit do?’
You designed it to look like a store, right down to an actual cash register. Why?
Some of my favorite memories as a kid were the experiences I had shopping for Smurfs. There was something magical about walking into a five and dime store and seeing one of those bright yellow Smurf Collector Center carousels filled with dozens of figurines. I actually own the original carousel from my favorite childhood Smurf haunt, Gift Expressions. When the Smurf craze began to fade in the late ’80s, the store’s owner, Rose, decided to give it to me for the bargain-basement price of $5. And now it sits in my store.
Your “store” is not open to the public, right?
It is not. And nothing is actually for sale. I’ve been inviting friends and family to tour the space, but I warn them ahead of time that if they touch anything an alarm goes off and a S.W.A.T. team appears out of nowhere.
What’s the most common reaction you’ve gotten from visitors who’ve had a sneak peek?
A lot of dropped jaws, followed by some version of, ‘Holy s—, you built a STORE.’ Because I purposely wanted them to walk in without an preconceptions. Most people I think were expecting a few IKEA bookcases and shelving units packed with thousands of Smurfs — something more traditional. A couple people even burst into tears.
I’m sure they’re all like children, and special in their own ways, but is there an item that you treasure more than others?
The Smurf figurine carrying the ‘green surprise bag.’ It was a piece that eluded me for years and Kit found it and gave it to me for Christmas. I talk about its special-ness in the book. And it’s front and center in the shop.
What do you think he would have thought of the finished product?
Initially he’d say something saucy like, ‘Um… when I told you on my deathbed to live for both of us I meant take a trip to Puerto Vallarta or go on an African safari — not THIS.’ And he’d probably take issue with some of the display pieces I chose because he had an impeccable eye for vintage furniture. He’d probably nitpick at the door hardware, too. But I think, overall, he’d be pretty impressed. And hopefully moved.
The book’s been optioned for a movie. Meanwhile, your childhood story is possibly heading to the small screen in a series. Surely the Blue Store will be appearing somewhere, right?
I don’t know about the Smurf room, but I imagine the collection itself could make a cameo in one or both projects. It would certainly be a huge weight off the shoulders of the props department. Until they get my bill.