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.
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.
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.
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.