Tona Moore has been buying products from Willis Beauty Supply for 50 years, but her connection to the business runs deeper.
Co-owner James Willis helped her get her first job at Goodman’s Beauty Corner on North Fourth Street in Italian Village.
Later, when she started her own salon out of her home, he let her pay $25 per month for chairs and other equipment.
“They’re just good people,” said Moore, 70, who owns Tona’s Hair Creations salon on the South Side, where she also lives. “Whatever you need, they’ll get it for you. They were faithful to me, so I’ve always been faithful to them.”
Dispatch Mobile Newsroom: Subscribe to our newsletter focused on Greater Columbus’ underrepresented neighborhoods
Willis Beauty Supply was founded by James and his brother, Sherman, in 1967 in King-Lincoln/Bronzeville. Two years later, they opened a second location on East Livingston Avenue, which is still operating today as one of the oldest businesses in Driving Park.
Willis Beauty Supply: Success came from building relationships with customers
Specializing in Black hair care products, the company has survived because of its strong relationships with long-term clients like Moore, and savvy business decisions.
A former insurance agent, James decided to try his hand at beauty supply at the suggestion of another businessman who hired him. The two men eventually parted ways, but James decided to stay in the field and work for himself.
He began selling products out of the trunk of his car.
“I got bit by it,” said James, 85, of Berwick. “I started off buying inventory from a guy down in Cincinnati. I was going down there every week because I had the relationship with the beauticians.”
An Army veteran, Sherman returned from Vietnam and partnered with his brother. The duo opened a shop at East Long Street and Hamilton Avenue. (They later moved the shop to East Long Street and Taylor Avenue, which is still open.)
They sold grease, pressing oil, curling wax and castile soap the size of a pound of butter.
“The beauticians would buy that and slice it up, put it in a gallon jug and make their own shampoo,” James said.
They also sold pressing combs and curling irons. They purchased their first ML-Forrest—the “Cadillac of pressing combs”—on credit from a salesman at a hair show in Philadelphia.
“He gave us a lecture when he sold it,” James recalled. “He said, ‘Now I don’t want to have to come to Columbus about my money.’”
“That wasn’t a lecture, that was a warning,” said Sherman, 76, of Berwick.
Black Business Spotlight: FishBurger to continue legacy of entrepreneurship in Driving Park
Back in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there weren’t many supply places for beauticians who served Black clientele, so the Willis Brothers did well.
Carolyn Solomon began buying color, shampoo, pressing combs and other items from Willis Beauty when she a 19-year-old employee at a salon on Long Street.
“You couldn’t get it from any other place,” said Solomon, now 72, who lives on the Far East Side and still shops with the Willis Brothers. “They were the type of jobbers that would come to the beauty salon and take orders. They didn’t do a whole lot of shipping. They personally brought it to you. That’s a lost art. That doesn’t happen anymore.”
James and Sherman have been described as “jubilant,” and their conversations have a light-hearted quality, even when they disagree on the history of the business.
“He had all the big customers; I had all the little customers,” Sherman said.
“We divided the city up,” James explained.
But their two biggest clients happened to fall in the elder brother’s area.
“Well, that was just a coincidence,” James said, laughing.
“We would be neck and neck on the amount of money,” Sherman continued. “I’d make 30 stops; he would have two.”
James’ son Brian said his father and his uncle have always gotten along.
“They finish each other’s sentences,” said Brian Willis, 61, of Berwick. “They think alike. Sherman is a little more outgoing, but my dad is quite the character, too. The running joke is he’s in the wrong field. He should have been in comedy. Sherman’s the serious one, but he’s a talker. Those are two good teachers. They know a lot about business, a lot about life.”
Finding additional sources of income helped Willis Beauty Supply thrive
When the Willis brothers opened the store in Driving Park, they had the foresight to rent some of their space for extra income. Peggy’s Chateau de Glamour was one of their first clients.
“There weren’t a lot of Black beauty shops over here in ’69,” Sherman recalled. “Most of them were on Long Street and Mount Vernon Avenue.”
They eventually expanded the building into the complex that still stands today. They now rent to multiple businesses, including a cell phone store, daycare, H&R Block, Dr. Clayton Hicks — a Black optometrist who has been operating Driving Park Vision Center for over 50 years — and Ujamaa Bookstore, which shares the same space as Willis Beauty.
Although the shop’s primary clients were beauticians, individual customers would come in from time to time, including some famous faces. Brian remembers seeing former Franklin County Municipal Court Judge Janet E. Jackson.
James also recalls a visit from Nancy Wilson, who was wearing a full-length mink coat. His eldest son, Marlo, was in the store and approached the famous singer.
“Has anyone ever told you, you look like Nancy Wilson?” Marlo asked.
At its peak in the late 1980s, Willis Beauty Supply had a revenue of $7 million, Sherman said. They opened a warehouse on East Livingston Avenue—now Dollar General—and later built a new, 35,000-square-foot warehouse in Groveport. They had over 60 employees, including clerks, delivery workers and salespeople.
And they had clients throughout Ohio and in states such as West Virginia, Virginia, Louisiana, North Carolina, New York, Tennessee and Pennsylvania.
“Then, it died,” Sherman said.
The brothers said they lost their biggest client to a former employee, and then had to contend with much more competition in the market.
Business is much slower these days at the shop, which is run by Sherman and Brian. James essentially retired 20 years ago and only comes in occasionally.
“In our case, there’s no real future in professional Black beauty supply because the way that it used to operate is just slowly disappearing,” Sherman said.
The older people are dying, and the younger people offer limited services, he continued.
“You could call one salon and if there were five people in there, you might get five orders. If it was 10, you would get 10 orders. But today, if you don’t have their cell phone number, you can’t talk to them because salons don’t have a landline anymore.”
A retail arm of the business would help, but they’d need multiple large locations to compete with the Korean-American-owned companies, which have taken over the market, Sherman added.
But he and Brian said they will keep going until they can’t.
“They’ve done it right,” Brian said of his father and uncle. “We have some assets. We own the building. (Sherman and I) are both too young to go home and sit on the couch. I wouldn’t golf every day, but I might golf every other day. But yeah, we’ll do it as long as we can.”
This story is part of the Dispatch’s Mobile Newsroom initiative, which is currently focused on Driving Park and surrounding neighborhoods. Later this month, reporters will focus on the Hilltop. Read their work at dispatch.com/mobilenewsroom, where you also can sign up for the Mobile Newsroom newsletter.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Willis Beauty Supply one of oldest Black-owned stores in Driving Park