Entrepreneur Seeks Buyer With A Sense Of Mission

By Lauren Slavin |
Herald-Times, Bloomington, Ind.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) For decades, Claralee Black has been helping women and men suffering from hair loss find a way to help make themselves whole again. Black’s wig company has been more of a calling than job for this entrepreneur who is now faced with selling the business.

Herald-Times, Bloomington, Ind.

There may never be an ideal time to lose one’s hair, but Claralee Black went bald with particularly bad timing.

The 18-year-old went to bed with a Marilyn Monroe-blonde pageboy cut and woke up without hair. A guest stylist at a hair show in Indianapolis had asked to give Black a perm, and the recent beauty school graduate was too flattered to say no.

“You just don’t get a permanent in bleached hair,” Black remembers, decades later.

In the late 1950s, most wigs were imported and made from human hair, which also meant they were expensive. The only hairpiece Black and her big sister, Marlene, could find in stores while they waited for backordered wigs to arrive from Paris was a bright red beehive. Wigs cost several thousand dollars, but Black needed to have hair.
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“What choice did I have? We were trying to open a beauty shop,” she said.

Black’s natural curls grew back, but not all of her customers are so fortunate. At the first beauty shop she ran with her sister in North Vernon and at the salon she managed in Indiana University’s Memorial Union, Black worked with women and men struggling with hair loss.

Some clients suffered from alopecia, an incurable autoimmune disease that causes hair loss. Others needed wigs to cover bald spots created by nervous hair pulling. And many seeking wigs were cancer patients who had lost their hair while undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

“It’s devastating for most people,” Black said. “When I went bald, it was one of the worst things that could have happened.”

It also opened Black’s eyes to a secret in southern Indiana: Plenty of people in Bloomington and the surrounding area wore wigs, but there wasn’t a local wig shop to meet the need for wig sales and maintenance. That’s what led her to open the Wig Wam close to 50 years ago.

“It seems like I’ve been there, oh gosh, at least 46, 47 years,” Black said. “It’s been fun, but it’s been rough.”

Like a good wig, the brick shop tucked away on West 17th Street doesn’t draw much attention, with only a small sign to mark its location to customers. For the past several weeks, a handwritten note has also been taped to the window next to the Wig Wam’s front door — shop hours limited due to illness.

‘It would have to be someone who was dedicated’
About three months ago, Black was diagnosed with stage four uterine cancer. Like so many of her customers, Black now wears a cropped russet wig to take the place of the hair she’s lost after three chemotherapy treatments. Black’s doctor will schedule another round of chemotherapy if he thinks the treatment is improving her condition, but the cancer already has spread to her lungs.

The 76-year-old colon cancer survivor never thought she’d undergo chemotherapy if she was diagnosed again, especially in the late stages of the disease. But treatment buys Black the time she needs to sell her store and its estimated $40,000 worth of inventory. She isn’t looking for just any buyer to take over the Wig Wam’s legacy.

“It would have to be someone who was dedicated. They’d have to enjoy people and want to help people,” Black said. “I just would like to have someone who can come in and care about the business and do some good with it.”

As far as Tonya Thurman is concerned, Black isn’t in the wig selling business so much as she is in the business of doing good. Thurman first started shopping at the Wig Wam about a decade ago, when she decided that wearing a hairpiece could make up for her naturally thin hair.

Buying wigs online or ordering wigs through television shopping channels meant risking that the piece wouldn’t sit as well on Thurman’s head as it did on a mannequin. One wig Thurman purchased through QVC she could only describe as “a disaster.”

“It was the most horrific thing I ever put on my head,” Thurman said.

Black agreed. The Wig Wam’s owner admits she has never been afraid to give a customer an honest opinion as blunt as a bobbed wig. But Thurman typically took Black’s advice, and urged the friends she sent to the Wig Wam to do the same. By her estimate, the wigs Black found “perfect” for Thurman always got the most compliments.

“She’s a better judge of what looks good on someone than they are themselves,” Thurman said. “She wasn’t about you spending a large amount of money in her shop; she never once tried to sell me something for the sake of selling it. She’s been all about trying to help her clients.”

Though the QVC wig wasn’t the right look for Thurman, Black traded her customer store credit for the wig and kept it at the shop for a future customer. There were always future customers Black kept in mind — cancer patients.

‘They need to feel good about themselves’
The Wig Wam was open Tuesdays through Fridays, and on her days off, Black volunteered with the Look Good Feel Better program.

Look Good Feel Better, a partnership between the National Cosmetology Association and the American Cancer Society, hosts workshops to teach makeup and beauty techniques to women who have lost all their hair, including eyelashes and eyebrows, after chemotherapy.

“Women, they need somebody to talk to. They need to feel good about themselves,” Black said. “When you come right down to it, so many women come in discouraged with wigs because they have not found the right fit.”

Natural light pours into the Wig Wam shop floor through the windows of a house that has been converted into a business. Black felt like she was trapped in a dungeon while working in a salon without windows, and she didn’t want her customers to feel the same. She would soon find out that for many of her clients, going to a wig store was as scary of an idea as imprisonment.

The Look Good Feel Better program recommended beauticians work with groups, but Black found the women felt embarrassed and self-conscious about their baldness even around a group of fellow cancer patients. She moved her displays to the front of the house and her fitting room to a more secluded area where she could work with women one-on-one, trying and trimming wigs until they found the perfect fit.

“Sometimes it may take trying five or 10 wigs on somebody,” Black said. “Sometimes they buy the first one. It’s how a person feels comfortable.”

Caring for clients
She tries to give her male clients even more privacy. The walls of the men’s room in the back of the shop are covered in posters featuring the IU men’s basketball lineup over the years. A hat rack sits in the corner of the room for men embarrassed to show their scalps, providing a place to store their caps while they try on hairpieces. But Black has seen embarrassment turn to joy over and over within the Wig Wam’s walls, once she makes a perfect match between wig and client.

“Some men get so excited they leave without their hats,” Black said.

Even after years in the business, some sales are harder than others. She knows children with cancer who lose their hair can be bullied by their classmates. She also knows how important a wig can be to a child’s emotional and even educational well-being.

Black remembers working with a 9-year-old with alopecia who was close to failing all her classes. Her wig was so ill-fitting it covered her ears and she couldn’t hear her lessons.

“I do get a lot of kids,” Black said, her voice catching. “Children are the hardest. God love them; I cry every time I think about the children.”

Since her cancer diagnosis, Black’s only been back to the Wig Wam a handful of times. With help from family visiting from out of town, she plans to list the property for sale. Her dream would be to sell her home, which is located adjacent to the shop, the Wig Wam and its inventory together to another wig retailer. Black wouldn’t even mind training someone to take over her business.

But the future of the Wig Wam, is “out of my hands,” Black acknowledges. She only hopes to find a new pair of hands worthy of her hair rollers and her customers soon.

“I almost cry every time I walk in the shop, because I miss it so much,” Black said. “You don’t wait on somebody for 40 years and don’t care about them.”

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