By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By RFT Staff
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By Ray Downs
WIGGED OUT: There was a time when Martin Luther King Boulevard was known as Franklin Avenue. At that time, a hub of activity was to be found at the intersection of Franklin and Jefferson avenues, where multiple streetcar lines took people to and fro between their homes and a bustling midsized business district.
Looking at the architecture there and some of the old photos, you can sketch out the scene: Three or four clothing stores, another handful of shoe shops. A restaurant or two, and some watering holes. Add in four drugstores and a couple of pawnshops. The Criterion Theater was open, then one of only five "black" theaters in town, serving folks from more than just the immediate neighborhood. Again, it doesn't take a long leap of imagination to think of people walking from door to door, shopping bags in hand, dressed in the clothing of an old Jimmy Stewart movie.
There's still a heavy doseof that old-style charm at the Heller Hair Goods Co., a wig and beauty-supply store just west of the corner of Jefferson and MLK Boulevard. Though the interior of the store is showing some wear, the stock alone offers a touch ofhistory that's priceless. The feel of the room is that of a business that's been around forever, which is true: The shop has been in continuous operation since 1908.
"They call our store a museum," says David Heller, who took over the shop when his father died on Oct. 12, 1946. "If they can't find it, they come to us. You'd be surprised how many people call us from Cincinnati, from Oklahoma."
Nowadays, a good portion of Heller's business is done by mail order, though the long years have seen the development of a regular customer base for the store's prime items. Wigs are definitely the biggest seller, accounting for more than three-quarters of the daily receipts. Reflecting that, a couple dozen Styrofoam heads wear the latest designs, as well as the retro hairdos that draw kids -- looking for a unique platinum style or a giant Afro for that weekend's rave or house party -- into the shop.
"Originally we sold a lot to undertakers," says Heller. "Now they're sold for chemotherapy. The business has changed considerably.
"We used to have a dozen workers making pieces. We imported our own hair, all of that. When China and Korea got into the business, it was no longer feasible. You can see some of the pieces still, in the other room. The pieces we did were quality wigs. We'd get hair from China, northern Italy, Algeria. Fifteen years ago, we got a lot from India. Good-quality hair, from religious sects that shaved their heads. Now there's junk, and better junk."
Obviously, common everyday folks have shopped at Heller. But stars? You want to know whether the rich and famous have passed through the doors? Sure, the stars have shopped there, as have all the local theater groups. Phyllis Diller photos hang on the walls, and Heller recalls, "We were the original people to make Tina Turner's wigs. As a matter of fact, Ike was in the store, let's see ... six or seven months ago, with his new wife and his entourage. I knew Ike when he was poor -- though I don't know if he's got money today."
Health problems have cost Heller some time at the shop over the past year, but his wife, Gertrude, has kept the place running smoothly. Though she defers all questions to her husband -- they quaintly refer to each other as "Mr. Heller" and "Mrs. Heller" -- it's not as if she's new to the business, having learned the wig market as far back as the 1940s and worked at the shop routinely for the last two decades.
"She knows the business," Heller says.
Heller, though, has been around the immediate area for as long as he can remember. In fact, he was born nearby, at 2805 Wash St., now known as Cole. The family then moved to the 2800 block of Dayton.
"I didn't get too far, other than going to school and in the service," he says, noting his return to the shop in 1946, after a stint in World War II. "I've been in there ever since I was a kid."
In that time he's seen plenty of changes in the surrounding area. As he notes, there was once "a good mix." Now, it's a bit of a different story. Across the street, the Criterion's been slowly crumbling for more than two decades, the days of its showing popular second-run features now history. A longtime neighbor, Globe Shoes, closed with the passing of its owner a short while back; now the front fencing is peeled away and what's left of the stock is sadly scattered around the ransacked interior.
Ironically enough, a city police superstation sits just around the corner. When it came, several businesses fell to the wrecking ball. It'd be false, though, to claim that the station's construction did any more than slightly accelerate the demise of the business district. Heller's, which once had stores in Olivette and Clayton, is down to this one outlet. Now it's one of the last survivors in this once-thriving strip.