Beauticians and the business of follicles

Hard to believe, but barber shops are popping up every day. Take ACE at 130 1/2 Broadway which recently opened on Capitol Hill. But there are more. Follicle, The Hair Connection, Scream, Scissors Place and Rudy's have all tapped into the business of responding to follicles. Since we all have them, their business could continue to grow.

"It's time for the new places with a lot of cool for not a lot of money," said Johnny Lawless, proprietress of ACE. "Hipsters don't want to go to chain salons for haircuts, nor do they want to work there and wear cookie-cutter, dress code outfits."

Most stylists, it seems, don't want to work in cubicles without social interaction with clients and other stylists. The new barbershops are friendly, comfortable and fun.

"Ever since I was little, I was cutting my baby sister's hair, Barbies and all my doll's hair. It's great, now I get paid to talk to people and make them look pretty," said Joie Belknap, a stylist at Rudy's on East Pine Street.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, barbers, cosmetologists and other personal appearance workers held about 790,000 jobs in 2000. Nine out of 10 jobs were for barbers, hairdressers, hairstylists and cosmetologists. Of the remaining jobs, manicurists and pedicurists held about 40,000; skin care specialists about 21,000; and shampooers about 20,000.

Customers often don't know what the job is like from the stylist's point-of-view.

"We're beauticians, not magicians!" said Belknap. "If they bring in a photograph of layered wavy hair and they have bone straight hair, that's not realistic. Stylists that are successful treat clients all the same, they are courteous and listen. Communication is the thing. For a stylist, it's 70 percent personality and 30 percent ability."

Julia Purdy, ACE manager and stylist, agrees that communication is important: "It's great to hear a client say, 'oh my god this is exactly what I needed.' To have them come up to you at a bar and say, 'You cut my hair today and I love it, let me buy you a drink.' I enjoy making people feel good, and I can create works of art with people's hair."

Hair, of course, needs to be cut. And in this economy, where it can be difficult to find employment, there are usually help-wanted ads for stylists and barbers. But people need barber shops for reasons other than just a haircut.

"We live in a society where people need an excuse to be touched in a safe environment. Getting a haircut is a way of unwinding and relaxing," said Lawless.

"Male clientele especially want to be pampered, touched, to feel special and to be told they are fabulous," added Purdy.

According to Bates Technical College, which trains stylists, the career path of a barber is a solid one for many reasons. The employment outlook is very good, nearly all students have jobs by the end of training. Graduates can earn $8 to $11 an hour at the beginning. With commissions and tips they can earn $40,000 to 50,000 a year. A $5 tip is typical.

Hairstyles keep changing, new products are developed, and services expand - barbers must learn about the most current techniques. They attend training at salons, cosmetology schools, product shows and workshops. According to recent labor statistics, the median annual earnings for hair professionals was $18,330 in beauty shops and $16,900 in barber shops.

"A lot of people have been in this business for more than 10 years, but what matters is how much energy you have and how much you're willing to put into it. We're a couple of girls who put in a grass roots effort and flew by the seat of our pants and wing it. Hopefully, it will work out," said Lawless, adding that the feedback at ACE has been all positive..

"Clients and salon owners appreciate a stylist who has a good, personal style, natural creativity, is outgoing and has a positive attitude," said Purdy.

Belknap said she enjoys working as a stylist.

"Rudy's has funkier clientele," she said. "We can be artistic, crazier and it's fun." Her best advice to anyone thinking of going into the field: "Be yourself as a stylist. Customers pick up on that if you're fake or not. Remember, everyone is trying to outdo each other, they can be catty and 99.9 percent of stylists are drama queens."

She does wish customers could be more patient while they're waiting. Stylists need breaks, too.

"We want to do the best to make [customers] look good, and that takes time," Belknap said.

And just what is 'in' right now?

According to Purdy and Lawless, the European razored mullet is coming back. This means a faux hawk for girls, the disconnected look, extreme pieces that aren't the same length, textured styles and anything that is weird.

"I had one guy come in and just say I want you take out chunks of hair all over, and it looked good," said Purdy. "But the inverted bob is my favorite. I like crazy colors and when clients say, do whatever you want. I will make you look fabulous!"

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