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Store owner continues serving clients after closing salon

August 31, 2018

ST. LOUIS (AP) — Martha Dille walked with a colorful cane through one of the most recognizable entryways in St. Louis.

The front of Gringo Jones Imports is pleasantly bizarre. A 17-foot multicolored giraffe statue and stone-carved knights, yetis and dragons spill out to the sidewalk, turning heads near the corner of Shaw Boulevard and Vandeventer Avenue, not far from the Missouri Botanical Garden.

But 88-year-old Dille isn’t here to shop. She’s due for a blow dry and a curl.

Leon Jones, 70, founder and owner of Gringo Jones, has been doing Dille’s hair for nearly 50 years. Their weekly shampoo-set appointment began in the early ’70s when Jones owned a salon in Webster Groves.

Though he closed that shop 23 years ago to open Gringo Jones, he’s never had it in him to turn away a few of his most loyal hair clients, like Dille, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

Today, his store is a local institution: A 10,000-square-foot labyrinth of rooms filled with Mexican pottery, antiques and oddities, with many loyal customers.

Most don’t realize the old salon chair tucked away in a corner of the shop actually gets used.

On a recent morning, Jones opened the store early for Dille, a distinguished woman from Ladue with — at the moment — slightly flat hair. Dille is always sure to bring her own purple can of Aqua Net for when Jones runs low.

“And how are you today, Martha?” said Jones.

“Oh, I’m OK,” she replied.

“OK is pretty good some days.”

“OK is better than nothing!” Dille said.

The friends laugh and wind their way through the crowded shop to start their familiar routine.

When he met Martha Dille, Leon Jones was in his early 20s, a young business owner in a new city.

He grew up in tiny Iuka, Illinois, population 471, but went to New York for beauty school and decided small-town life wasn’t for him. He moved in with an aunt in St. Louis after graduation and opened his salon, Mane Country, in Webster Groves in 1971.

When Dille came in for an appointment, she took to the witty stylist right away.

Dille grew up in the Central West End and had an extensive social network in St. Louis as the wife of energy executive Earl Dille. Her husband eventually became president and CEO of Union Electric, now known as Ameren.

Dille rarely missed her weekly hair appointment with Jones.

“She always kept me in line,” Jones said. “Martha loves order. She’d ask: Have you made your will yet? Is your insurance paid?”

Jones said he never had a passion for styling hair, but loved the relationships and banter he built with clients like Dille.

“I got closer to my customers than most of my family,” he said. “My family is 90 miles away, but then I would see people like Martha every week for her shampoo-set.”

Jones was also close with his staff. He would pay for annual trips for all the stylists to Cancun, Mexico, and soon started bringing back goods to sell in a space next to his shop.

He expanded the side business when clients introduced him to auctions and estate sales where he picked up antiques to sell along with the Mexican imports.

That business grew when Jones was in his late 40s. He started to have pain in his legs from the long hours standing at the salon, and decided he needed a new career.

Jones closed the salon in 1995 after 24 years and expanded his import business in a former German bakery on Shaw Boulevard.

When Gringo Jones opened, the area was rundown, but the building was large and a good price, Jones said. Its proximity to the botanical garden made it a good place to sell garden accessories.

Jones took hair clients in one room of the shop at first for extra income, but soon realized he couldn’t easily balance both businesses as vendors would wait for him to finish a blow dry.

“I really had to decide: Do I want to stand here until my legs totally give out or do I focus on Gringo Jones?” he said.

He told his hair clients he was going to quit, but a few — like Dille — just kept coming, Jones said with Dille standing by his side.

“Well, someone was going to have to tell him how to live,” she responded with a faux-serious tone. “I had to make sure he was following my instructions.”

The first visit a Post-Dispatch reporter paid to Gringo Jones was one of the rare times when the owner was not there.

“He’s delivering a 12-foot T-Rex and a baby T-Rex to Lesterville, Missouri,” said Rod Nelson, the store manager who has been a Gringo Jones employee for 18 years and lives across the street.

When he’s not in the shop, Jones is attending auctions about once a week in search of inventory, or loading a truck for special deliveries, like a 2,500-pound stone yeti he recently took to a farm outside of Kansas City for a wedding gift.

He still occasionally goes on buying trips to Mexico, but mostly stocks the store through longstanding relationships with vendors who send him about three to four semi-trucks full of pottery and other imports a year.

The shop is still the center of Jones’ life — he lives in a one-bedroom apartment above the store.

“It’s a good commute,” he often said. “The only time there is a traffic jam is when all of the dogs try to go up the stairs at the same time.”

And it’s hard to miss the dogs of Gringo Jones.

Nelson said Jones is still the heart of the shop. “He’s 70, but he’s still here almost every day,” he said. “This store is really an extension of Leon.”

There’s Brownie the coonhound, a three-legged chihuahua named Sam and two boxers — both named Darryl. They tend to lounge near the front of the store looking almost regal in their designated chairs placed by a gold-accented headboard and a painting of dogs playing poker.

The chairs get switched out often, Jones said, pointing to the more sensitive of the Darryls.

“In two years, he’s gone through seven chairs. He digs,” Jones said. “You know, he likes that shabby chic look.”

Beyond his “maybe a little spoiled” pets, Jones’ personality shows at Gringo Jones in the unusual items, each marked with a note in his all-caps handwriting.

On an old hutch used to store staff paperwork, a note reads: “No this piece of crap, I mean furniture, isn’t for sale. You deserve better.”

The card on an antique beauty salon perm machine reads: “Not a milking machine. Not a finger warmer. What kind of sadistic contraption is it? $250.” But Jones doesn’t need the notes himself. He remembers the price of every item at Gringo Jones.

During an interview, when staff members and customers approached him with items, Jones spouted prices. It’s $55 for a large metal sun, Jones said. Mexican pottery was 20 percent off. A metal oil bottle was $4.

“It’s all my stuff,” he said as explanation. “And I guess I have nothing better to think about. I love the hunt. You know some people hunt deer, I hunt baker’s racks and pie safes.”

To some, Gringo Jones seems disorganized, a bit grubby and overwhelming. To others, that’s part of the charm — like the attic of your eccentric, world-traveling uncle.

“You won’t like us if you’re normal,” Jones said. “We don’t do normal.”

Through the years, Jones has always had Dille’s support.

When he began selling imports, she would take his silver to social luncheons to sell, and direct people to his new store.

She told her friends with authority: Gringo Jones is just wonderful. They had to go and tell Jones that Dille sent them.

“I asked her: Martha do you get up on top of the tables and do a commercial?” Jones said. “She sent me so many people from the country club. They didn’t all like the shop of course, but enough of them did.”

And despite the wackiness of Gringo Jones, Dille faithfully arrived for her hair appointments.

Today, Jones still sees a few other clients on occasion. He still cuts the hair of an organist, a priest, a dermatologist and a therapist, though all are retired now.

But Dille is the most consistent. She comes now whenever one of her two sons or her home health aide can drive her.

“People think I’m nuts,” she said. “But I would never think of going anywhere else. Nobody does a better curl, you know.”

Jones laughs.

“Here comes another Martha commercial.”

On the day of her recent appointment, Dille wears a smart Oxford shirt with a ring on a delicate chain around her neck. The ring was a gift from her husband, who died in January after 66 years of marriage.

Dille sits down in the salon chair next to a 6-foot Día de los Muertos skeleton. With practiced hands, Jones blow dries her hair before working his curling iron in rows.

He sprays clouds of Aqua Net as he asks about Dille’s children.

“Everyone is moving around doing stuff,” she said. “As long as it doesn’t involve me, I’m fine with it.”

In just a few minutes, Jones brushes out the curls into soft waves.

“You look human and everything now!” he said.

“Oh good grief!” Dille laughed.

It’s not clear how much longer these appointments will last. Jones is beginning to think about selling the shop and retiring.

“I’m 70 now, so it’s time to be a little realistic. Not terribly though,” he said. “I’m always saying on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, it’s for sale. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, it’s not. And on Sunday I can’t decide. It’s been my life for almost a quarter of a century, so ... it’s hard.”

For now, though, Jones is looking forward to a shipment of two life-size Clydesdale statues, continuing to hunt for unusual goods and doing hair for Dille whenever she calls.

When the styling is done, she walks with her cane — which she bought at Gringo Jones, of course — out of the store. They pass a griffin, a giant rooster and a group of Virgin Marys as Dille waves goodbye to one of her oldest friends, her hair perfectly curled.

___

Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, http://www.stltoday.com

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