Walking tour spotlights legacy businesses on South Street

The National Trust for Historic Preservation defines legacy businesses as “small businesses that have existed for more than 30 years and have made a significant contribution to the city’s identity.”

Julia Zagar, owner of South Street’s Eyes Gallery, talks about her business to all who attended Sunday’s walking tour of legacy businesses on South Street.

Residents of the South Street area were treated to a walking tour of four of the street’s legacy businesses on Sunday afternoon. The legacy businesses featured on the tour, which was sponsored by the Young Friends of the Preservation Alliance and the South Street Headhouse District, included Rocker Head Salon, Eyes Gallery, Cohen and Co. Hardware and South Street Souvlaki.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation defines legacy businesses as “small businesses that have existed for more than 30 years and have made a significant contribution to the city’s identity,” according to the organization’s website.

“There’s a reason people come here and continue to set up businesses here and continue to visit,” said Bill Arrowood, the tour guide and assistant director of the South Street Headhouse District. “Almost every Philadelphian…has something they’ve experienced on our street. You cannot say the same for other parts of the city. Not everyone in Philadelphia has a Manayunk story. Not everyone has a Rittenhouse story. But everyone has a South Street story.”

After the introduction, walkers were led to the first stop on the tour, Rocker Head Salon, which is located at 608 S. 3rd St., right off South Street. The salon has been in the South Street District for 30 years, and its current location for 25.

“I opened here because I wanted to be a part of the neighborhood,” said Rocker Head’s owner Kathy Blair. “I didn’t want to be an uptown salon. I wanted to get to know the people. So I’ve had people come in here since they were 2 years old and now they’re married with children. I wanted to be part of the community and I keep my prices low. And a good haircut never goes out of style so I just march right along.”

Blair said she named the salon after a doodle she drew once, which looked like a “rocker head.”

“I said ‘oh my god, that looks like a rocker head,’” she said. “There ya go! I’ll open Rocker Head.”

After Rocker Head, Arrowood led the group to Eyes Gallery, which is a gallery featuring Latin American crafts and specialty clothing. The shop is owned by Julia Zagar and her husband, Isaiah Zagar, who is a famous Philadelphia-based mosaic artist widely known for being the owner and creator of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, also located on South Street. Eyes Gallery has been located at 402 South St. since 1968.

The Zagars came back from volunteering in the Peace Corps in their youth, and weren’t sure where they wanted to live. Even though they were both from New York City, Julia Zagar said, they opted to come down to Philadelphia to start their own business.

“We liked the idea of making something out of nothing — building something that is your own,” Zagar said of her business, which is housed in a building she and her husband used to also live in. “So we bought this building for $10,000 and it had been a rooming house. It was really disheveled. My husband got to work on banging it apart and we spent a year or two making it livable.”

After Eyes Gallery, the group was led to Cohen and Co. Hardware, a business that has been in the neighborhood for an incredible 104 years selling hardware.

“When somebody comes in and says ‘my father sent me from South Philly. He remembers your grandfather.’ Stuff like that — you can’t put a price on it,” said the store’s owner Mitchell Cohen. “That’s what keeps us going. With all these big box things and online [shopping], that’s what keeps us going, so that’s what’s really important.”

The last stop on the tour was South Street Souvlaki, a Greek restaurant located at 509 South St.

Owner Tom Vasiliades opened the restaurant in 1977.

“This is the place to be I think,” Vasiliades said through a thick Greek accent. “There’s nothing else like it anywhere in the world.”

Vasiliades also spoke to the diversity of his restaurant’s menu as well.

“We have a combination of everything,” he said. “We have lamb, we have chicken, we have vegetarian, we have vegan, seafood. Whatever you people want, we have it. And the good thing about the menu is that it’s not that expensive. Anybody can afford it.”