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Zaga Petrovic, co-owner of Chicago Hair Goods, will be the first to tell you that nothing in this world is permanent. Not the beauty-supply business. Not permanents, she admits with a sigh. And not the art of wig making.
“All those are gone, dead, who used to make handmade wigs,” says the 62-year-old Petrovic, who’s Serbian, though these days she tells people she’s Russian to avoid trouble. “Now we have to send to France. There’s a place, a monastery, where nuns, they are doing that. When you have ready-made synthetics in stock that look so good–and you know, you don’t have those kind of people who would wear that anymore. They want now easy style–you just dunk it in water and swish and do wash and shake, leave it to dry and put on. I mean, the styles are different. It’s not anymore those fixed styles that it used to be 30, 40, 50 years ago. It’s different. It’s more free, windblown. Absolutely different, a different everything.”
Chicago Hair Goods, a sixth-floor storefront at 428 S. Wabash, sells products that are difficult, if not impossible, to find anywhere else in Chicago: Becky Lynn Self-Adhesive Silk Overlay, Youthair Creme, Phos-Four Super Gel Cold Perm, Afro Sheen Blowout Kit, Vapon Wig Cleaner, Five-Second Nail Filler, and Nestle Touch of Glitter, along with various hair-coloring systems, blends, tints, toners, sprays, and assorted goop. A sign on the street still reads Chicago Hair Goods Co.: Human Hair for Weaving.
To get to the store you have to ring a buzzer, and most likely Petrovic or her 50-year-old partner, Judi Kukla, will come down in the elevator and pick you up. “We have established customers, old customers,” says Petrovic. “We are not like an establishment that you seek from the street, when you just go and buy whatever you want. Years ago, years ago. But not anymore. You know what you want, and you know where to go. When that goes we will be old, we will be gone, and I guess no more.”
A Gothic-script sign over the entrance reads, “Through these doors pass the finest people in the world–Our customers.” There are fewer customers these days, but Petrovic likes it that way. “Stuff like conditioner, shampoo–general things that we supplied–we eliminated,” she says. “Because you have Phar-Mor, you have that M & M–whatever is the name, I don’t know–and you go there and you buy all that stuff. We don’t need it. Certain people, they can’t find in other places, they come here and they find.”
The place is decorated with an old, torn pea-green carpet and a kelly green tarpaulin. A sign over a desk reads Wigs-Falls-Wiglets. A sign over the counter reads “Free neck duster with every hair clipper.” Another sign indicates a public telephone where none exists. Dozens of beautifully made-up foam mannequin heads with wigs sit in a big glass cabinet under the sign Hair Goods Dept. There are beauty-salon chairs all over the place, as well as sinks and vanity mirrors. Some antique items are stored in a fifth-floor warehouse space, including barber chairs with porcelain armrests and two enormous hair dryers from the 1930s, the Normandie Thermocontrol and Rilling Accelomatic, which strongly resemble cement mixers.
“We try to keep it like it was,” says Petrovic. “We don’t want to modernize. We want to keep like nobody has in Chicago.” She points to a device that’s all wires and menacing clips. “This permanent machine, it’s–oy geez–I think it’s maybe 60 years old or something. We could sell that a million times, but we don’t.”
The glory days of the store began in 1909, when it was opened by Morris Goldstein, a Russian immigrant, and ended in 1992, when his son Nathan died of bone cancer. It was Nathan who hired Petrovic and Kukla in the early 60s. “We didn’t feel like employees,” says Petrovic. “We felt like a part of the company, because he never acted as employer. To this place he was like sunshine. He was full of life and jokes. Always when he goes to lunch he brings back dishes for myself and for the young lady [Kukla] and says, ‘Kids, I brought something for you.’ And always some new joke.”
These jokes were recorded in the Herb Lyon Tribune columns that hang in the back of the shop: “Nate [Wiggery] Goldstein knows a nutty golf guy who used his wife as a handicap!” “Nate [Wiggery] Goldstein reminds our town’s barbers that scalping is now illegal!” “N.W.G. zings–In the spring, a young man’s fancy turns to a young girl’s fancy turns!”
Petrovic says Goldstein belonged to many charitable organizations, was a well-respected member of the community, and is probably the only person ever to have been both included in Who’s Who in American Beauty and awarded the Israel Peace Medal. He had many famous friends, and their pictures still line the walls of the store: both mayors Daley, Jane Byrne, Harold Washington, presidents Johnson, Nixon, Carter, and Reagan, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope, George Burns, Jimmy Durante, Danny Thomas, Johnny Carson, Mitzi Gaynor, Beverly Sills, Carol Burnett, and Topol. There are also photos of showgirls, a dancing Oreo cookie, a poodle wearing a blond wig, and A.F. Willat, “inventor of cold permanent weaving and dean of American hair scientists.” And pictures of Goldstein with Harold Washington, at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and deep-sea fishing in the Bahamas.
Petrovic describes how Goldstein helped celebrities who came to town. He provided ace relief pitcher Rollie Fingers with Hongroise Pomade, which kept his mustaches properly twirled. He sold stage makeup and discreetly provided toupee services. “We used to make the wigs–what was the guy who passed away, anchorman for the sports? Had a flat toupee. Costell. Howard Costell. He was a customer, a very dear old customer. We fix toupee nicely for him, but he couldn’t wear it like that. He likes toupee flat– and look like a wreck.”
It’s late on a roasting weekday in July, and no one’s in the store. Petrovic plays solitaire at her desk. Kukla–who’s wearing a T-shirt with images of Bugs Bunny, Sylvester, and the Tazmanian Devil, all in hip-hop clothes–reclines in Goldstein’s old office, smoking a cigarette.
The place is sweaty and quiet except for the hum and click of a few fans. The windows are wide open, and the el rumbles by.
“We leave these windows open all the time, and dust will blow all over,” says Petrovic. “But we don’t care. Better dust than to die.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.