October 17, 2012

WTH? Athens

Invisible Economies

"Lee's Wigs," suggests a Flagpole staffer. "How does that place stay open?"

Janet G., the lone Yelp reviewer of the store, has the same question. "The downtown Athens mystery," she writes, "How does a perpetually empty wig shop on Clayton... remain open year after year?"

I visit the empty store, and hundreds of heads stare down at me from the shelves. "Hello!" says a male one sporting a very realistic-looking short wig. Then the head moves, and I see it's attached to the body of Mr. Kevin Lee. He's peering at me over the stairway railing, where he's working to unload stock. He's unsure why anyone would want to write a story about wigs and asks me to come back later to speak to Jasmine Lee, his wife.

Jasmine Lee, co-owner of Lee's Wigs.

A few days later, I'm back, and again, I'm the only customer. Mrs. Lee is beautiful, and elegant, and gamely tries to answer my repetitive questions. I'm too polite to say "You have no customers, how do you stay open?" so I ask instead about her patrons. If she can answer these questions, I figure there must be some. She can't say how many customers she averages during the week, but says that most of her clientele are African-American.

"Well, where are they?" I blurt. "I mean, do you do a lot of in-store business, or is it mainly online?"

"Oh no, they come in the store."

"They do? When? When do they come in the store?"

"When they want to buy a wig," says Mrs. Lee, enunciating carefully.

"No, I mean, do you have a busy season?"

"Well, tax time is good for us. Lots of ladies use their returns to purchase wigs."

I ask Mrs. Lee if she has anything else she wants to add. She considers and then says something that sounds almost like a warning. "If you don't need a wig, you don't think about wigs. But when you do need a wig, you really need a wig."

I come back a few days later to stake out the front of the store. After awhile, a pale redhead enters the shop while her male companion waits outside. The woman, Meghan Jackson, comes back out after a few seconds, and I accost them.

"Why did you go in that wig store?"

"Because I like wigs," she says. "Plus, I need a job. I wanted to see if they're hiring."

"Well, I'm convinced this store is not really a wig store, but a front for something, like a dog-fighting ring."

"We should have brought our pit bull," says Meghan's companion, pragmatically.

They walk on, and a man who has been standing on the corner for some time approaches. "You need to come back around noon," he says. "There are tons of customers."

"Tons?" I say, skeptically. "What are they doing there?"

"Getting their eyes plucked," he responds, disappearing into the fog.

I turn back to the store and see a woman in a business suit exiting. "Why were you in that store?" I yell, whipping out my notebook.

"I was getting my eyebrows plucked. I come here all the time. So do all my friends. Ten dollars. Mrs. Lee is a genius."

I've never really had my eyebrows plucked before, but this will allow me to hang out in the store and maybe ask more questions. The Lees are delighted to see me, and Mrs. Lee gets right to work. She's careful, a perfectionist. While she's working, two ladies come in. "I'm gonna buy me a wig!" declares one of them, clapping her hands. "I'll pay $100 to find the one I want!"

I plead with Mrs. Lee to stop fussing with me and go help some actual paying customers, but she is adamant. "Every customer is important. I will spend time with them the same way I'm spending time with you."

When I go to the front to pay, I look in the mirror and am amazed. "I look so... awake!" I tell her husband, "and so much less like Brezhnev."

"Yes," he agrees. "Mrs. Lee is the best in town. But you must come in early. Everyone wants Mrs. Lee."

On my way out the door I pass an elderly lady coming in. "Are you going to buy a wig?" I ask her.

"I bought the one I'm wearing here. Maybe I'll get another one."

So, the real question, here, is not "How does this place with no customers stay open?" The real question is "What's the matter with us that we think this place has no customers?" Lee's Wigs has lots of customers. But maybe the fact that this clientele is different from the typical downtown shopper makes them somehow harder to notice.

What else are we missing simply because the reality doesn't mesh with what we expect to see? I don't know, but I do know that I am hightailing it back to Lee's Wigs the minute I need another eye-plucking. Mrs. Lee and her husband do what they do very well. Just ask any of their customers.

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