Special Reports

Circus left town, but B&I stands tall

In the arcade, games light up dramatically, tempting the few weekday morning visitors to part with a quarter or two.

Across the labyrinth of the B&I Public Marketplace shopping complex, hundreds of wigs sit atop their indifferent Styrofoam heads, waiting to show someone a new self.

A Mexican restaurant is just starting to serve tortas and licuadas to the customers trickling in.

Everywhere you look, there are signs that the B&I is as diverse a shopping center as it gets. There are few other places in the area where you could browse gold-plated eagle medallions, play "Dance Dance Revolution," buy ornate cowboy boots at the "zapateria," or get chana masala spice and lychee juice from India.

Bustling, it's not. But its dozens of family-owned businesses serve a minority of people from other cultures looking for a taste of home - as well as curious, bargain-hunting Tacoma natives.

The steady lull of foot traffic doesn't seem to detract the people who opened businesses there. For many, it serves as a starting point to success.

"If I were young, I'd golf professionally," said So Un Shim, owner of the wig shop and salon in the B&I.

Shim sits at her desk, where both her golf trophies and the large room of wigs are visible. The smell of acrylic nail solution lingers.

She's lived in Puyallup for about 22 years, she said, and moved here after beauty school in Los Angeles because she preferred the weather. She opened her salon about a decade ago, but moved to the B&I because it offered more space.

"I take care of my business," she said.

But, Shim said, she's not sure if she likes it there.

"It's so-so."

Began as hardware store

The B&I, of course, didn't start out as a sprawling maze of an informal international center. Instead, it was an 18-by-78-foot hardware store with neither sidewalk nor parking. Business partners E.L. Irwin and M.L. Bradshaw stocked the small store with durable goods and opened in 1946.

An article in the South Tacoma Star three years after it opened proclaimed the B&I the "biggest little store in the world." By then, the business was doing $150,000 in sales a year and had "eight courteous employees to serve you."

As the business grew, it got a bit more curious, becoming the B&I Circus store. A short hallway in the B&I chronicles the transition with newspaper clippings.

In 1948 it held Tacoma's first sidewalk sale - a novel concept at the time - and bought a carousel, which secured the transition to a "circus store."

By 1953, it had acquired Sammy the elephant. Bradshaw and Irwin had Sammy captured in India and shipped over.

Somewhere along the line, they acquired the chimp pair Cathy and Murphy.

As the store grew in the 1960s, the B&I hosted television character Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, boxer Joe Louis, television cowboy the Cisco Kid and Pat McGee, the world champion female skateboarder. Each time, full-page newspaper ads and wheat paste posters would advertise the exciting stars' arrival, and each time, parents would accompany their children in a line that snaked through the store for the chance at an autograph.

Jody Gripp, now 49, remembers meeting Burt Ward, the actor who played Robin the Boy Wonder on the 1960s "Batman" TV series, at the B&I in 1966.

"I remember going to the B&I with my dad and buying the 45 (record) of the theme song," she says. Ward autographed the record and a photo.

"The B&I was a fun place to go," she remembers. "Every time you went there, you knew there would be something new."

The B&I Circus Store expanded, adding amusements and rides - including giant water slides in 1983.

Ivan, The face of the B&I

But neither animal nor celebrity had as lasting an impact as Ivan the gorilla, who came to the store in 1964. The gorilla was a toddler then, and still in diapers.

Irwin built him a $60,000 state-of-the-art habitat, including indoor and outdoor play areas, a heated floor and small pool, where Ivan spent his first 30 years.

Ivan became the toast of the B&I. Couples went on dates to visit him, and children stared in awe.

But gorillas are social creatures, and Ivan needed more than gawks. By 1992, when he'd spent 28 years without gorilla companionship, animal rights groups began pressuring the B&I.

Two years later, they succeeded: Ivan made the journey to Atlanta, where he now lives at Zoo Atlanta. At age 45, he's a geriatric gorilla, according to Jennifer Waller, a spokeswoman for the zoo.

According to the zoo's Web site, Ivan spends his days relaxing in the ample sun with other gorillas but will lay down burlap bags to avoid getting his feet wet if it's raining.

Despite attempts to breed Ivan, he never reproduced, and it's unlikely now, Waller said, because of his age.

In captivity, gorillas can live to about 50 years old.

"He's doing fine. He's still healthy," she said.

Things are different now

Since Ivan left, the store has ushered in a new era. Instead of wild animals, children are lured by an arcade, stuffed to the gills with games.

The flashy celebrity appearances have been replaced by the steady business of more practical shops, like B&I Workwear or the foam and fabric store. (Although there was one appearance from tone-deaf American Idol participant William Hung in 2004.)

And the hardware has been replaced by family-owned businesses, partitioned with half-walls, that sell everything from cell phone accessories to airbrush art.

Mariana Rosas has had her Mexican restaurant, El Charito, for four years. Before opening her own place, she worked for a restaurant.

She started her business at the B&I because, as she said in her native Spanish, "It's the only place that's cheap."

Like many of the business owners who moved from foreign countries to start new lives in the United States, Rosas is guarded. With a smile, she deferred when asked questions she deemed too personal, like how she came to Tacoma or whether she likes it here.

But, because the B&I is affordable and already attracts some foot traffic, she felt comfortable opening a business there. That means she can support herself while doing something she loves - cooking.

The story is similar for Raul Estrada's family, who owns the Mexican Art store, where the walls are lined with fountains, sculptures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and ollas, or ceramic pots for cooking.

"My dad went on a vacation and saw all this neat stuff," Estrada said, "and just started selling it at the swap meet."

His business became so popular, he decided they needed a storefront. His dad now drives to Michoacan, Mexico, every three or four months to get new inventory, taking special orders with him each time.

"This is the family business," Estrada said, and perhaps the start of something much bigger. "We have one store, maybe we can have more."

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Niki Sullivan: 253-597-8658 niki.sullivan@thenewstribune.com