WIGGED OUT: Last downtown wig shop closes

chwilliams@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 26, 2013 

Wig shops once dotted the downtown Columbus landscape -- about a half dozen of them sprinkled between loan stores and a few bars.

The merchants who operated, and in many cases owned, the shops were Korean women.

Today, there is one left -- Sister Wig in the 1100 block of Broadway -- and its days are numbered. To Sun Storm and her daughter, Yun Mi Wagoner, sold Sister Wig this month to Jason Gamache, the founder of PTAP, a successful Columbus automotive accessory company. Storm owned and operated Sister Wig for nearly four decades.

Gamache bought the building and its inventory -- everything from wigs to boric acid used to kill roaches. He is currently liquidating the merchandise with an eye toward redeveloping the building for an undetermined use.

From the 1970s through the early '90s, the wig shops were part of the identity of a faltering business district. But even in a downtrodden downtown, the wig shops stuck out -- not unlike a bad hair piece.

Jim Lynn was a Columbus Ledger-Enquirer reporter and editor in the 1980s and '90s, who, along with several others, was offered a bounty if they could get to the bottom of the reason there were so many wig shops downtown. Then-editor Jack Swift put a $100 financial incentive on the table.

He never had to pay it.

"Jack wanted to know why there were so many, and what they really sold," Lynn said. "I remember going into one place, making some effort to figure out the story. There was a Korean woman, and she said, 'You want to buy, fine. No talk.' It remained a mystery."

Business model

It really wasn't much of a mystery, Wagoner said. And she insisted nothing sinister was happening.

All but one of the shops was owned by Korean women married to U.S. soldiers, she said. The other shop was owned by a Korean couple.

"It was all Korean," Wagoner said. "It was something we could do that was affordable, and there was a market for it."

It was affordable because, unlike today, downtown real estate was cheap and available. They were occupying space others had vacated and didn't want.

"They bought those buildings for the price of the bricks," said businessman Buddy Nelms, who started buying property downtown in the mid-1980s.

But there was another factor, Wagoner said.

"The wig wholesalers were mainly Korean, so there was not a communication problem with them," she said. "That was one of the reasons many of the Korean women stuck to the wig business."

The wig-shop clientèle during that period was overwhelmingly black.

"It was 99 percent African-American in the 1970s and '80s," Wagoner said. "All of us had our regular customers, and when they came in they knew what they wanted and the styles they liked."

And urban clothing stores such as Disco Fashion and the Movin' Man were located close to the wig shops.

"People would come from outside of Columbus and the men would shop at Disco Fashion and the women would shop with us," Wagoner said.

One of the things Gamache has noticed as he has combed -- and there are plenty of combs and brushes -- through the Sister Wig inventory that he now owns, is the diversity.

Wigs are just a part of the merchandise.

"It is 36 years worth of stuff," Gamache said.

Handbags. Samurai swords. Mittens. Fingernail clippers. Costume jewelry. Sun glasses. And 864 different styles of wigs.

"What you see here is one of the things that happens in retail," Gamache said. "Let's say stick-on tattoos were super hot in 1998. Well, you are buying all of these stick-on tattoos that year to meet the demand. It's not like they send you an email that tells you stick-on tattoos are not the thing any more. It just happens, and you get stuck with all that inventory."

The market -- as well as downtown -- changed on the wig shop owners. What was once an urban shopping area is now a restaurant and entertainment center.

"We were the main place, if not the only place, you could get a wig," Wagoner said. "Then the beauty supply stores began selling wigs. There was more competition."

Faced with liquidating the Sister Wig inventory before he can get to the business of redeveloping the space at 1105 Broadway, Gamache is getting creative.

"I am looking for a nonprofit organization that can benefit from this," Gamache said. "I want something that is hair-related, possibly involving cancer treatment. I would like to donate the proceeds directly to something."

As of Friday, he was still looking for the right fit. The store was open over the weekend and will be open next week as Gamache sells to people looking for everything from a Halloween costume to a bargain-basement price on wigs, purses and the like.

A symbol of downtown

The wig shops became emblematic of the issues with downtown, Lynn said.

"To some, it became a real symbol of one of the things that needed to change downtown," Lynn said. "In many ways, it became a symbol of how downtown could be different."

It also became one of the first things a visitor or someone new to Columbus noticed.

"It was a running joke -- a head scratcher," Lynn said. "But it was also an oddity."

Nelms, now one of the largest downtown property owners, said the Korean wig shop owners played an important role in downtown revitalization.

"I know a lot of people made fun of them," Nelms said. "They are heroes. They stabilized the retail down here. If they had not brought some stability, some of those buildings would have been bulldozed. They came down here, hooking and jabbing, buying buildings, paying taxes."

Now, folks like Nelms and Gamache are hooking and jabbing in the fight to finish the redevelopment of the central business district that has been enhanced by the completion of the Chattahoochee River whitewater project.

Gamache, who now owns three downtown commercial buildings and other holdings, lives downtown. He is looking to what happens with the Sister Wig space after the inventory is gone.

At 34, he is a new breed of downtown developer and entrepreneur. He's not sure what will go in the store, but he knows what it won't be.

"It will not be a bar," Gamache said. "There are a lot of good bars and night clubs. We are good with that. I have nothing against bars, but there needs to be other businesses."

Gamache paid $200,000 for the property. What he found is a building with great character and bones. Carpet covers hardwood floors, and high above, covered by a drop ceiling, there's a wooden barrel ceiling.

"Look at that," Gamache said as he showed off the curved ceiling that slopes from the walls toward the center the narrow building. "I am looking at what can be restored in this building."

The new use is still in question, Gamache said.

"My end-all is I want something that benefits our village," he said. "This is about the continuing transition of Uptown. In five or 10 years after whatever moves in here moves in, people are not going to remember this was a wig shop."

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