Renovations In Bella Vista Reveal Barber Supply And Bootlegging Biz

 

Philly architecture fans lit up social media this past spring after Via Bicycle moved out of their original location and their sign was removed, revealing the original use of this old storefront in South Philly. | Photo: Michael Bixler

Nestled into a quiet block along 9th Street just below South sits one of the prettiest storefronts in South Philly. Home to Via Bicycles since the the 1990s, the well-loved bike shop recently vacated the building at 606 South 9th Street after the property was sold to a developer earlier this year. When the bike shop’s sign was removed from the storefront’s facade this spring, the building’s original occupant, the Tripoli Barber Supply Company, was revealed. The building speaks to both Bella Vista’s rich immigration history and Philly’s illegal alcohol trade during Prohibition.

Barber Shears and Bootleg Booze

Charles, Frank, and Angelo Di Puppo were born in Bisaccia, Italy and came to Philadelphia as teenagers at the turn of the 20th century. In 1911, the three Di Puppo brothers, two of which were trained barbers, founded the Tripoli Barber Supply Company at a building that still stands at the northeast corner of 9th and South Streets. The company produced, sold, and distributed an array of barber supplies–razors, scissors, soaps, perfumes, you name it.

Tripoli Barber Supply’s registered trademark 1929-1950. | Source: U.S. Patent Office

Business boomed throughout the second decade of the 1900s. Angelo Di Puppo branched out and opened the South Broad Street Trust Company, but the bank failed by 1920. On April 16, 1921, Tripoli Barber Supply Company purchased an old row house at 606 South 9th Street and opened up shop there by 1923. Shortly after, they commissioned local Italian American architect Enrico Coscia to design a brand new facility for the company that would serve as sales showroom, offices, and a manufacturing and distribution point for Tripoli Barber Supply.

The new building was a sight to behold and it still is today. Brown bricks are arranged in a variety of patterns and directions. The unique window fenestration gives the facade the illusion of soaring skyward. Lovely showroom windows on the first and second floors are all held up with a limestone base. But the money to build such an extravagant new headquarters didn’t entirely come from selling pomade and hair tonic. The Di Puppo brothers were also some of the most successful bootleggers in town.

During the Prohibition, denatured alcohol was available for purchase from the U.S. Government for industrial use. Usually this came in the form of soaps, creams, and perfumes made for the barber shop industry. In the early 1920s, all kinds of ersatz barber supply and soap manufacturers were established in Philadelphia in order for bootleggers to get their hands on the denatured alcohol and then resell it to covert distilleries who would cook the alcohol to make it safe for consumption. Most northeastern cities acquired illegal alcohol from Canada during Prohibition. However, in the early 1920s, Philadelphia was the primary source of “diverted,” denatured alcohol.

Tripoli Barber Supply Company building in 1954. | Source: PhillyHistory.org

Perhaps because Tripoli Barber Supply Company was already established as a legitimate manufacturer and dealer of barber supplies, their illegal side business flew under the radar. The majority of the other companies engaged in this type of bootlegging were often busted in only a few months. The Di Puppo brothers managed to run their bootlegging operation from 1921 to 1925. They were the longest-running operation of this type, and they were one of the first companies to try it.

It is unclear what kind of consequence the Di Puppos faced once they were caught. The deed to their new headquarters was transferred into the possession of a Frederick C. L. Green in June 1925, but it was transferred back to the barber supply company shortly thereafter. 

The shakedown apparently had little effect on business. By the mid-1930s, the company opened a second location at 1225 Walnut Street called Tripoli Beauty Supply, focusing more on makeup and perfume. By the 1940s, 604 South 9th Street was combined with the property next door in order to accommodate all of the extra business. As the Di Puppo brothers died or retired, the next generation took over. As the decades passed, demand for barber supplies declined and their beauty supply business flourished. The company changed its name to Tripoli Barber and Beauty Supply Company and then just simply Tripoli Beauty Supply Company.

Bicycles and Macrobiotics

By the 1970s, the Tripoli Beauty Supply Company was gone. The family retained ownership of 604 and 606 South 9th Street, and leased the building to an art supplies store and a grocery store. In May 1975, an entity known only as Hamridge Associates bought the buildings and would own them for the next 41 years.

In the 1980s, a book store occupied the first floor, while macrobiotic health guru Denny Waxman ran the Philadelphia branch of the East West Foundation on the second floor. The organization’s mission was to bridge Eastern philosophy and Western values while counseling people on the macrobiotic way of life. The Macrobiotic Association of Pennsylvania was headquartered there as well. In the late 1980s, Tripoli Gallery occupied the first floor.

Renovations are underway at the old Tripoli Barber Supply Company. Current owners plan to merge 604 and 606 South 9th Street for two stores on the ground floor and 10 apartments. | Photo: Michael Bixler

In the early 1990s, an antique store leased the property until Curtis Anthony Jr. rented the entire building for Via Bicycle, a neighborhood stronghold until it closed and relocated to 622 South Broad Street at the end of 2016. 604 and 606 South 9th Street were sold in January to a pair of LLC’s that trace back to a house in Fishtown.

According to permits filed with L&I, the new owners plan to combine 604 and 606 South 9th, retain the two first floor storefronts, and install 10 apartments with a roof deck. Interior demolition work began this past spring.

About the author

GroJLart is the anonymous foulmouthed blogger of Philaphilia, where he critiques Philadelphia architecture, history, and design. He resides in Washington Square West. GroJLart has contributed to Naked Philly, the Philadelphia City Paper's Naked City Blog, and Philadelphia Magazine's Property Blog.

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11 Comments


  1. Cool. The Via Bicycles connection reminded me of the building where Bike Tech was located in the 1980s. It’s now the Cappelli Cigar Company on 13th. Pretty cool ass building that must have a good history. ­čÖé

  2. Via Bicycle was a fixture on Ninth and South for a very long time; the business thrived selling and repairing bicycles to the young people who grew up, got married, and had kids; all here in Bella Vista. The neighborhood is one of Philadelphia’s finest with great schools, restaurants and shopping as well as a walk score of 98 and mere minutes from downtown to the North;; the stadiums to the south; the airport (but who leaves town?) and I 95 to the east

  3. I am curious how you arrived at the conclusion that the family was selling bootleg alcohol out of the location at 606 South 9th Street?
    Thanks

    • The family was moving the denatured alcohol through the Tripoli Barber Supply business so I assumed that they did it through their business’ location, which starting in 1921 was 606 South 9th St, though at that point they may have been doing some work at their previous location at 525 S. 9th St. By your last name I can guess you may be related to this family? Any insight you can provide is appreciated.

      Here is an article that has a snippet from their court case

      https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uva.x006068074;view=1up;seq=432

      The case itself is called:

      U.S. v. Angelo Di Puppo, Charles Di Puppo, and Frank Di Puppo, Criminal Case 1546, USDC-EDP, RG 21, NA-Mid Atlantic

      • This is all news to me and I have never heard any of this growing up as both my father and grandfather worked at Tripoli. I knew that the alcohol was part of the process of making their toiletries. Thanks for the information.

        • Hi Maureen,

          I used to work with you at GMAC Commercial. I haven’t seen you in years but I remember your face and also the fact that we were both from the same area growing up in Northeast Philadelphia and I think you also went to Cardinal Dougherty HS like me. I was just reading the story of the Tripoli building, which is fascinating in it’s own right. I did notice the surname and it immediately made me think of you, because it is the same as yours and I never knew anyone else by that name. I did not think you had any connection to this building, just a coincidence, right? Then I finished the article and started to read the response and Lo and Behold, there you are!! Wow, a real connection with a bit of old Philly history. Your family goes way back, South Philly Italian neighborhoods I am assuming. That is so cool. I love family history like this, it connects us to our past and our immigrant ancestors God Bless them all!!I have a wee bit of interesting (and slightly illegal)family history myself, coming from my Irish side. That was Philly back then, a patch work of little, and not so little neighborhoods, Italians, Irish, Germans, Poles and many more. They made this city what it was, the workshop of the world!! The ethnic European Catholics were the backbone of this city’s industrial might and their history is fading fast. Glad to see the Tripoli Fa├žade is being preserved. That is your history and I think that is great!! Let me know if you see this post.

          Joe

          • Thanks for reaching out, Joe. I used to see you when you were visiting when I worked at Ally. I think you were are Gateway. Yes although not mentioned here, my grandfather was the fourth brother both he and my dad worked at Tripoli when I was younger than 6 years old.
            I was by this property recently and knew about the bicycle job leaving.
            I grew up in Jenkintown so no Cardinal Dougherty for me. Both my grandparents and my dad grew up in South Philadelphia.
            Good to hear from you. Hope all is well with you.

    • They sold it off the distribution trucks.

  4. I love it! My great grandfather and his brothers have left us some fantastic family stories. My father speaks often of the bootleg stories along with some of the other”side businesses.” To see that the store front is still there warm my heart! Thank you for publishing this!

  5. Anthony V. Di Puppo

    My Father , Pasquale Di Puppo, was a cousin of Angelo, Frank, Charles and Matthew . He emigrated from Italy with Angelo’s support after the great war and went to work at Tripoli in about 1920.
    My father told me that Tripoli had a special license to buy 190 proof grain alcohol for use in manufacturing aftershave lotions and other cosmetics. Their average usage before prohibition was 2 barrels a month (55 gallons/barrel).During Probation the usage increased to 50 barrels/month and it was grain (ethanol) not denatured alcohol. Denatured alcohol has an additive to make it undrinkable and the additive can’t be removed through distilling because the boiling point of the ethanol and additive are close.
    Tripoli had the bottling equipment and transportation network (during prohibition they were delivering to all of Philly, north to Harrisburg and most of south Jersey). They distributed to barber shops and added some pharmacies during prohibition where a “Prescription” could get you a bottle.
    Dad said that most of the money gained from the bootlegging was put back into the business and they purchased additional trucks and expanded there territory north to Erie and east to the outskirts of New York. I worked at the 9th street building summers during high school in the early 60’s and have great memories of that South Philly neighborhood.

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