From Hair Store to Watering Hole: The History of Japp's OTR
Updated: Aug 15
It’s 1879 in Cincinnati, Ohio. John G. Japp, Sr. was the founder of the historic Japp’s Hair Store in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood.
Born on August 12, 1850, in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany, Japp immigrated to America as a young man. He first settled in Chicago during the time of the Great Fire of 1871. He was in the building business and had a hand in rebuilding the city. He then moved to Texas when it first became a state, and again to St. Louis, Missouri, where he married the love of his life Lena Erhard.
John and Lena Japp moved to the Mt. Lookout neighborhood of Cincinnati together. In 1879, they opened up Japp's Hair Store, a toupee and wig shop on Main Street in Over-the-Rhine. At the time, OTR was a popular shopping district, especially with the addition of Alms and Doepke Dry Goods Company on the corner of Canal Street and Main Street (now Central Parkway and Main Street) one year prior.
Located at 1134 Main Street, Japp's Hair Store was four floors high and sold the highest quality wigs, toupees, hair dyes, hair accessories, and toiletries.
The interior layout of Japp's Hair Store.
A few years later, Japp moved the store down the street to 1134 Main Street, next to Hanke's Department Store. Japp's Hair Store occupied the entire building. The first floor of Japp's was primarily utilized for the display of wigs, braids, and toupees, as well as a full line of Japp's hair care products, pastes, and kits. The hairdressing parlors were located on the second floor, which offered luxury services like hairdressing, shampooing, permanent waving, hair staining, scalp treatment, facial massaging, manicuring, and more. At the turn of the century, permanent waving took over half a day. With the state-of-the-art equipment and patented innovations, the time was cut to under two hours by 1940. The J. G. Japp Toilet Requisite Company, owned by Japp and his family, manufactured toilet preparations in the same building between 1912 and 1925.
In 1905, John and Lena built a house at 115 Hosea Avenue in Clifton. Together, the couple had four children: Mrs. Viola Quebman (William H. Quebman) of Cincinnati, Mrs. Florence "Flossie" Robinson (Arthur Neal Robinson) of Atlanta, John G. Japp, Jr. of Cincinnati, and Reuben S. Japp of Cincinnati. John Japp, Sr.'s beloved wife, Lena, passed away on August 28th, 1902. Mr. Japp was a widower for 32 years.
Japp ran the hair store as the president until the time of his death. He fell ill a week prior to his death and passed away on September 2nd, 1934, at 84 years old. John G. Japp, Sr., along with the rest of his family, is currently buried in Spring Grove Cemetery.
The store remained in the Japp family until 1985. Reuben S. Japp and William Quebman, Jr. went on to run the company after John G. Japp, Sr.'s death. For nearly a century, Japp's Hair Store prided itself on crafting the highest quality, handmade wigs from human hair.
A woman standing outside of Japp's Hair Store on Main Street.
Japps' 1134 Main Street location was purchased by Bob Schneider in 1988. Rumor has it there was over $20,000 and so many boxes of real hair, money, and equipment left behind that the products covered the cost of the entire building. The original cabinets, mirrors, partitions, and glass remained in the building. However, the rest of the existing contents were donated to the Cincinnati Historical Society.
In 1992, Neill Bairstow was out with his friends on Main Street when he saw a "For Rent" sign in the window of Japp's. A former Subway franchise owner seeking his next career move, Bairstow leased the space and turned the former hair store into a bar that was inclusive and inviting to all. At the time, Main Street had two bars and a diner. Over-the-Rhine was past its "hay day," as many businesses on the street were boarded up, but it remained a popular spot for locals.
As stated in the lease agreement, Bairstow was entitled to everything left over from Japp's Hair Store. He looked into the history of Japp's and learned of its reputation as "the largest hair goods factory and retail store in the world." He was determined to turn Japp's the bar into a nightlife destination that lived up to its former glory.
On opening night, Japp's was packed! Many locals and visitors alike loved the preservation of Japp's Hair Store. According to Neill Bairstow, "When we started Japp's, there were three bars on [Main Street]. When I sold Japp's, there were sixteen." The bar was purchased and sold a few times up until 2002, when it shut down for good.
Japp's first opened as a bar in the 1992, under the ownership of Neill Bairstow.
Cincinnati icon and mixology maven Molly Wellmann leased Japp's in 2010, continuing the era of Japp's, a bar with an emphasis on classic cocktails from the 1700s - 1950s. In 2022, Cincinnati-based hospitality company Four Entertainment Group (4EG) purchased Japp's from Wellmann. Today, the tin ceiling and back bar are both original to the space. Confirmed by former owners Neill Bairstow and Molly Wellmann, there is a good ghost that lives within the wall of Japp's. According to a psychic, the ghost is, "not a bad spirit, just one captured or stuck in the store." Perhaps could it be one of John G. Japp's successors trapped in the family business... or someone else?
The historical space calls for a historical menu, so there's a unique story behind almost every drink! Come check it out for yourself.
4EG's Senior Marketing Manager, Saijal Andreadis (left), with previous Japp's owner Neill Bairstow (right).