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.
"I'd like to see Mayor Harmon, instead of using his mouth, do something about this," he says, ticking off a laundry list of needs and wants. "With the police station, we lost half the street. Across the way, a furniture store tried to do something with a building, but they kept running into trouble with the city. We don't need any more empty lots down here; we've got enough already." More than anything: "I'd just like to see them keep it clean."
Heller Hair Goods, it seems, has lived up to its end of the bargain, alive and kicking down at 2709 MLK Blvd., a beacon of commerce in a zone that could use more of that.
"We keep a low profile," says Heller, "and do what we have to do."
B(e)SIDES: It was mentioned in passing last week, but a happy hour is being held at The King & I restaurant (3157 S. Grand) today to push local development, especially on the residential side of things. The party is also the kickoff to a Metropolis "walk" through the scenic South Side nabe. And no one does better work at attracting interest in city living than Metropolis! (Wink, wink.) Memo to West County members: Wear wife-beaters, flip-flops and halter tops to best fit into this exotic locale.... Also new on the strip is the return of Our World Too!, the gay/lesbian/what-have-you bookstore that recently shuttered in Midtown. Now found at 3194 S. Grand, the specialty shop's pressing for an opening this weekend.
In corner-bar news: Pop's (5249 Pattison, on the Hill) has become Pop's Blue Moon, open for about three weeks. The long-ago confectionery's been given a mild once-over, keeping some of the classic fixtures while adding new touches. The venerable tavern, held by one Hill family for nearly six decades until the recent sale, is a nice place. Again. Meanwhile, the much-missed Fortune Teller Bar (2635 Cherokee) has become the Cherokee Bootery. They sell boots.
One more thing wrong with the plan to inject $17.3 million of pork into the Washington Avenue beautification project: Despite the big money, the plan stops short. (And just how much do benches and trees cost these days?) Yes, instead of linking Washington Avenue to the corridor of nightspots near 20th/21st and Locust, the plan pulls up near 17th Street. If the purpose is to instigate pedestrian traffic, this would seem an obvious -- even essential -- step. Waste, waste, waste.
The Britton Auction group tossed another fine going-away sale last week, this time at the late Carriage Bowl. These events are purely addictive, the buying frenzy causing wallets to open for objects that aren't exactly necessary to human survival: novelty clocks, quirky mirrorsor glassware, one-of-a-kind mementos like giant wall menus. They can also cause frayed nerves. "Don," a frequent buyer, was apoplectic that a worn three-sink unit was mislabeled and sold out of order. He bid $100 for the piece, worth only a fraction of that figure. Calm down, man! It was a fun way to spend a long morning, Don's unanticipated freakout only adding to the giddy buzz of unfettered secondhand consumerism.
The "Infamous South Side Brain Teazer" has gone into dry dock for a conceptual retooling. No readers took advantage of last week's answer, which was: "Stephen Runde, traffic and transportation administrator." Oh well.
THE HIT PARADE TOP SEVEN: This week, the top seven thoughts that came to mind with the announcement of KTRS' hiring of J.C. Corcoran as part of their bloated morning show:
7. "There's always room for balding white
guys on local radio -- especially at
KTRS, where they come by the dozen."
6. "One fewer station to scan in the
5. "Steve Moore: supergenius."
4. "At least Manuel Ponte is happy."
3. "First Abuse Boy, now this."
2. "Ad rates just got higher, humor just
1. "Wouldn't wanna be Donn Johnson."
E-mail tips, quips and Women's World Cup office pools to: Thomas_Crone@rftstl.com.
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