When Julia, Seth and I walk into Sue’s Wigs and Fashions, the elderly Korean owner - the store’s namesake - gives us a polite greeting.
But she doesn’t want to talk to us.
“You come back later and talk to my daughter,” she tells us, covering her mouth with one hand. “She’ll tell you about the store.”
I’m disappointed, because I’ve wanted to talk to Sue since finding out she is one of the longest-running merchants on Buckeye Road - and one of the most direct victims of the street’s persistent violence. Her husband, who ran a clothing store next door to Sue’s Wigs, was shot dead during a robbery in 1995.
I’ve been wondering about what kept her here after a loss of that magnitude. Resilience? Defiance? Financial necessity? As we start to leave the store, I figure I’ll never know for sure.
But then Sue stops us, eyeing Julia.
“You are Chinese?” she asks, and Julia nods. “From what part?”
“Taiwan,” Julia answers.
Sue tells Julia her granddaughter attended Case Western Reserve University, studying economics and political science.
As they keep chatting, a remarkable connection is made. It turns out Julia was friends with Sue’s granddaughter, Hannah Cha, when the two both lived in Cleveland.
Sue hurries over to the checkout counter, where she pulls out photographs of Hannah as a girl and even a newspaper clipping about a cello concert Hannah gave as a teenager. Then out comes a full photo album of Hannah and other relatives.
“She lives in China now, a diplomat,” Sue tells us. She stumbles over the word “diplomat,” and apologizes for her English - as well as her “dental problems,” the reason she’s shielding her mouth with her hand. We all assure her we understand every word.
As we stand there talking, surrounded by untold numbers of wigs on styrofoam heads, Sue tells us more of her own story. She, her husband and three children moved to the United States in 1973, when she was in her mid-30s. At first, she worked at the Mr. Coffee manufacturing plant in Cleveland’s eastern suburbs.
Later, when one of her friends was selling her wig shop on Buckeye, Sue bought it. She had cut hair back in Korea, and the store seemed like a natural extension of that work. Her husband eventually opened a big-and-tall clothing store next door.
“When I first moved in, people made fun of me,” she remembers. “They’d open the door and tell me to go back to China.” (Most didn’t realize she was actually from Korea.)
As she persevered, though, Sue - now 79 - became a fixture on the street. The heckling died down.
Without prompting, she pulls out a picture of a man dressed in a suit and tie, his hair neatly parted. Her eyes become damp as she tells us how her husband sometimes drove back to Buckeye at night, to make sure no one broke into the stores. It was on such a night that he was robbed and shot dead.
“It was very hard for a long time,” she says. “Still hurts.”
She kept her store open, though, because it was how she supported her children and grandchildren - including Hannah, who lived with her.
“You were very brave to keep going,” Julia says.
Sue shrugs. “People ask me, are you afraid,” she says. “I’m not afraid. Because I have the store so long. I know customers from here” - she gestures with hand to indicate a toddler-size child - “to old ladies now. They know me, they care about me.”
Her faith, she says, also protects her.
Despite what happened to her husband, her belief in God was strengthened when Hannah, after being diagnosed with cancer in her early 20s, made what Sue considers a miraculous recovery.
She holds her free hand - the one not protecting her mouth - to her chest. “I trust in God because he gave me my Hannah back,” she says.
A few days later, Julia sets up a Skype conversation with Hannah so we can hear her memories of the store.
Hannah is now eight months into an 18-month assignment as a foreign service officer at the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai.
As she sits half a world away in an office surrounded by computers, Hannah says she’s thrilled to talk about her grandma, her “favorite person in the world.”
She lived with her grandparents growing up, and often spent Saturdays in Sue’s Wigs.
What she remembers most about those long weekend days isn’t the surreality of being surrounded by hundreds of disembodied wigs, but the warm feeling of the place.
“I felt loved when I was in that store, around my grandparents,” she says. “I always looked forward to being there.”
She felt safe, too, even though by then (the 1990s) Buckeye Road had begun to lose many of its long-term tenants to the suburbs and crime was common. She does have a vague memory of being shoved under a blanket by her grandma and being told not to move - but nothing came of it.
Hannah remembers her grandfather’s death as “devastating” for Sue. For a while, Sue would visit his grave at the cemetery every day.
But none of Hannah’s relatives tried to talk Sue into closing down. They all lived the immigrant lifestyle of hard work and dedication, she says. And anyway, Sue wouldn’t have listened even if they had tried to persuade her to close.
“There’s no way my grandma could’ve not worked,” Hannah says.
Shortly after Hannah’s cancer diagnosis, Sue suffered a heart attack -- perhaps triggered by the news. She never came to visit Hannah in the hospital.
“It wasn’t because she didn’t care but because she just couldn’t handle it,” Hannah says.
Hannah worries a little about Sue minding the shop on Buckeye Road by herself. But she says her grandmother has developed a remarkable boldness, shaped in part by the street itself.
“Especially before grandpa died, she was more timid,” Hannah says. “But in the past 10 years she’s become more, ‘I can do whatever I want.’ There’s a certain fearlessness about her now.”