A pandemic can't stop Ypsi's vibrant hair artist community

From a Depot Town boutique owner who manages a salon hidden behind a fake bookcase to stalwart stylists working out of their own homes, Ypsilanti's hair artists are a diverse bunch.
From a Depot Town boutique owner who manages a salon hidden behind a fake bookcase to stalwart stylists working out of their own homes, Ypsilanti's hair artists are a diverse bunch.

And although the hands-on nature of their work made the COVID-19 pandemic a particularly challenging time for them, local hair artists have bounced back with a strong sense of community.

"There's no reason to be cutthroat. There are a lot of different people and different types of clientele," says Gwen Thomas, a longtime salon owner who now cuts hair in her Ypsilanti Township home. "I believe there's enough for everybody."
Star Studio by Angel owner Angel Vanas.
Ypsi's hair artists have come to their industry in myriad ways. Angel Vanas, owner of Star Studio by Angel at 224 W. Michigan Ave. in downtown Ypsilanti, felt she had to totally reinvent herself in the late 2000s after quitting her job, going bankrupt, and leaving her husband all in the same week. She saw an ad for a newly-accredited beauty school that was taking on students and went to check it out with a friend.

At the time, she says she was "monumentally poor" and had no idea how she was going to pay for it. But between financial aid and cleaning the school in exchange for a break on tuition, she was able to become certified without having to spend much of her own money.

She worked for several other hair businesses, learning what she liked and didn't like, before her growing network of friends and acquaintances convinced her to start her own business. She received the keys to her downtown salon in May 2017 and set out to make it her own.

"I wanted the space to reflect the beautiful, artsy, slightly gritty atmosphere we have in Ypsilanti. I wanted my style of work to reflect that but also bring technical excellence with that," Vanas says.

DaSharra Smith, owner of Headspinners Salon at 870 Ecorse Rd. in Ypsilanti Township, got into trouble for cutting her hair and even dyeing it with Kool-aid when she was in grade school, so becoming a stylist was a natural move for her. She's been doing hair in Ypsilanti for 26 years and always dreamed of being her own boss. Smith says she had the name of her salon picked out well before she began working for herself.

"I had that name in mind since I started doing it, because I'm always spinning heads," she says, motioning to the chair where she spins clients around to work on their hair. "And, also, when they see [a hairstyle I created], I hope it makes people turn around and look."

She says her favorite part about being a stylist is the "transformation."

"Sometimes people come in and think I probably can't do anything for them. But I already see what they don't," she says. "I see the transformation with them coming in looking sad and gloomy, and then they look in the mirror and go, 'Oh my God!' I see them go out the door with a whole different walk."
Headspinners Salon owner DaSharra Smith.
Smith says she rarely does any marketing because her hairstyles are her biggest advertisement. Almost all her clients come to her through word of mouth, and she says she tries to create an atmosphere that is "respectful to all."

"I do all types of people, from the young bopper to older church-going people to party people. I always wanted a shop where everybody can come and respect one another," she says.

Claire Broderick has been a hairdresser in Washtenaw County for 18 years, 13 of them in downtown Ann Arbor. In addition to her day job, she was very involved in the community and got her salon involved in community events like FestiFools. She was so active that people sometimes mistook her for the owner of the salon where she worked.

"I kind of started thinking maybe I should do my own thing," Broderick says. 

Broderick opened one shop in Ypsilanti that closed after two months due to a disagreement with her landlords. In September 2020, though, she established a unique gift shop called This, That, and the ODDer Things at 50 E. Cross St. in Ypsilanti's Depot Town. A fake bookcase in the back of the shop is the hidden entrance to her salon, Sprig's Hideaway.

Broderick bought a house in Ypsilanti 10 years ago and began getting involved in the community here as she was in Ann Arbor.

"I was born and raised in Ann Arbor, but I had really wanted to invest in Ypsilanti," she says. 

Today, she does that not only through volunteer work in the community, but also by bringing Ann Arbor-based clients to Ypsilanti.

"I had always told my clients about the things I was doing and helping with in Ypsilanti, but now I get to bring people here," she says. "A lot of my clients don't come to Ypsi much and some have never been to Depot Town before. They'll say, 'Wow, it's really cute.' I feel proud I can be one of the people who helps open up people's horizons."

Hair gems hidden in homes

Some Ypsi-area hairdressers have an extra-low profile because they work out of salons in their homes. 

Longtime residents of Ypsilanti may remember Rosaline's Beauty Salon, a downtown Ypsilanti staple for many years. Rosaline Meeks moved her salon into an extension of her Ypsi Township home several years ago, changing the name of the business to Hair and Whatnot, though most clients still think of it as Rosaline's. 

Meeks began cutting friends' and family's hair at age 15, but a hair disaster prompted her to get licensed when she was in her 20s.

"A lady had a big bleached afro and wanted a relaxer," she says. "I told her the box said not to use it on bleached hair, but I was 15 and she was bossy. I put it in, and all her hair came out."
Rosaline Meeks and her son Maurice Mobley.
Meeks says she went to beauty school "to find out what happened" and make sure that no similar hair disasters would befall any of her clients in the future.

Her reputation in the community grew over time, and she eventually had a total of eight barbers and stylists working for her.

"It was a dream that came true, but then it got complicated," Meeks says.

It became difficult to balance running a business with caring for her children, and she says "managing people took away my passion for doing hair." Now, she sees about four or five long-term clients per day in her home. She's joined in her shop by her son Maurice Mobley, who also became a certified hairdresser. He first became involved in the family business by shampooing customers when Meeks developed a bad back. When he realized he could make good money, he went to school to become licensed in cosmetology. Now mother and son cut clients' hair side by side in their home salon.

Thomas owned three different salon locations in Ypsilanti, including Panache and Panache International, but she retired 20 years ago from the salon business to stay at home and raise her grandson. She still cuts hair in her home, but only for about 10 people she's known for more than 30 years.

"They're more than just clients. They're more like family to me," she says.

Surviving COVID-19

Although many of Ypsilanti's hair businesses suffered financially during the COVID-19 pandemic, their long-term customers' loyalty has helped many of them bounce back. Vanas says she felt she was "starting to hit my stride" in early 2020 and was fully booked more often than not. Having to close for three months during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic was hard and scary, but her growing network came through for her.

"That's when we really started to see the beauty of Ypsi's 'Let's stick together and make this happen' spirit," she says. "It was amazing to see, all of a sudden, groups on Facebook for business owners, groups for helping people get food, people trying their best to help each other."

Vanas says going back to work after a three-month hiatus was "amazing and terrible at the same time."

She knew she needed to start making money again but was scared about how much physical contact she was going to have with clients and whether she'd get exposed to the virus. Vanas' apprentice quit after three weeks of 12-hour days as clients poured back into the salon.

"I don't fault her," Vanas says. "... It was awful, but also amazing, to do what I do and help people. It seems like such a little thing to help someone get their bangs out of their eyes or do a root touch-up, but the power these little things wield is unbelievable. People would come in distraught but then leave looking 15 pounds lighter, with their chins up."

Smith had particularly unfortunate timing for launching her own salon. She opened Headspinners in early 2020, just months before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It was definitely a struggle at times," she says. "But I worked all these years and didn't really take time off, so at first it was more like I needed that time off. I embraced it."

Smith says the time off "worked in my favor" by allowing her time to learn more about the industry and explore taking online classes. Still, she's glad to be back to working with customers, some of whom have been with her for decades. She says at least one client has been coming to her for 24 years, and in other cases, she has worked on three generations of the same family.

Broderick says COVID-19 was hard on both her and her clients, many of whom she's known for years and feels close to.

"I missed our time together, listening to people and being there for people, allowing them to be safe and away from children or whatever. It's their time," she says. 
Sprig's Hideaway owner Claire Broderick.
To allay their pandemic fears, Broderick installed air cleaners and only allowed one client at a time into the salon. She also established an outdoor hair salon tent with a fishing cabin-like theme, which she calls her "hair shanty," for clients who felt safer being served outside.

Broderick says that with the easing of pandemic restrictions, she's hoping to have more events and "experiences" in her gift shop and salon. She says she'd like to bring in crystal specialists, tarot readers, and art shows, and maybe even host light rituals around full moon or new moon haircuts.

"If you get your hair cut on the full or new moon, you can set your intentions and burn them into the air," she says.

Camaraderie, not competition

Vanas says hair stylists have a reputation for being competitive, but it's "not true." In fact, she says she'd like to create a networking group or even a "guild" for local stylists where they can refer clients with special needs, find out who is hiring, or talk shop about new trends.

"I literally can't do everybody's hair," Vanas says. "I did the math, and because the average time in my chair is two and a half hours, if I wanted to work on 1% of the population of Ypsilanti, I'd have to work 900 hours a week."

Vanas says there's no need for competition in the salon business because different clients look for different atmospheres. She notes that some clients seek serene, spa-like salons, while others want a more energized experience.

"I'm loud, I swear a lot, and I cackle like a witch in a movie all day long," Vanas says. "Sometimes the music is loud. It's a high-energy kind of place."

Meeks agrees, noting that each stylist has their own "signature style" that attracts clients to them. She says if you can offer that signature style to one person who truly appreciates it, they'll bring others to your business. She says starting with just one loyal family of customers can provide a stylist with a significant amount of work.

Broderick's business is right next door to another salon, but she went out of her way to let the other salon owner know she wasn't there to take away clients.

"Most people don't even know there's a salon in the back," she says. "They find me by looking me up online or through referrals. It's better to support one another than to be competitive. Sometimes if I'm out of town, I'll send my clients to other people, and know they'll be taken care of."
Gwen Thomas.
Thomas also says she's never seen her industry as competitive. She appreciates the mentorship she received when she first started working for another stylist at Penthouse Hair Design in Ypsi Township, and remembers going to big hair shows with other stylists.

In fact, she recently reached out to rivals in the hair industry to ask how she could help. When Shawn Green, co-owner of Finesse One salon at 500 N. Congress in Ypsilanti, became ill shortly after his salon reopened following a COVID-related three-month hiatus, Thomas asked what she could do to help his wife and co-owner, Hala Green.

"I wasn't close friends [with them], but I respected Hala's work. She had a certain style, and you would know that Hala did it," Thomas says. "When I heard that Shawn had gotten really sick, it was on my heart. I knew it was just the two of them in the salon and felt bad for her and him."

Hala said she could use another stylist in the salon, so Thomas came out of retirement to help out at the salon indefinitely. 

"They're beautiful people. I enjoy the shop and the clients," Thomas says. "I'm glad I offered and that they accepted."

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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