copyright the Chronicle April 30, 2014
by Natalie Hormilla
Marie Turmel Kroeger opened a hair salon in a refurbished milk house in Craftsbury last month with confidence and enthusiasm.
“It’s called faith in oneself,” she said, just a couple of weeks into officially opening The Milk House Hair Studio on King Farm Road.
Ms. Kroeger’s business offers a range of services, including hair cutting, coloring, highlighting, and styling, and other treatments like relaxed permanent waves and facial waxing. She also does makeup for, and consults on, events like weddings or professional makeovers.
Everything happens in a 300-square-foot space, restored and relocated from across the street by her husband, Ben. The space is decorated with artwork mostly painted by Ms. Kroeger herself.
“It’s really, really quaint, and very personalized,” she said.
The Milk House Hair Studio is one of two new salons to open in Orleans County in the last six months. That makes at least 34 places in the county where people can get their hair done.
If that sounds like a tough market to break into, Ms. Kroeger seems undeterred.
“It’s all about the clientele,” she said, of running a successful shop. “I don’t have a clientele, but I’m capable of getting one.”
She actually does have a few clients already — some of whom followed her from her previous four-month gig in a Montpelier salon. But most of her 20 years of experience were gained in south Florida, where she mostly grew up.
Ms. Kroeger moved to Vermont in 2011. Her father has had a home in Vermont for 15 years, and he owns the Three Bee’s Guest House on Craftsbury Common.
Last August, she married Ben Kroeger, whose family has owned the old milk house a long time.
A couple of weeks into the operation, Ms. Kroeger said business looked pretty good.
“I think it’s going really well considering I haven’t advertised,” she said.
She already has three local weddings scheduled for this summer, and she expects walk-ins once she gets her “open” sign.
“There’s quite a bit of traffic that goes up, even though it’s a dirt road,” she said. “A lot of walkers, bikers, people driving by. I’m really optimistic about the traffic that will come in.”
Ms. Kroeger is also a painter, and she has set up her easel in the studio space to utilize the time she’ll have between scheduled clients and walk-ins.
“My intention is to paint while I wait,” she said.
Some might say that opening any new business, especially in a rural area, is a tough venture. And trying to carve out a spot in a market that’s already served by so many others might only compound the gamble. But it seems that, in the hair business anyway, there’s more than enough business to go around.
“The beauty industry is an extremely lucrative industry,” Ms. Kroeger said. “If you want to make it your one strongest income in your home, it can be. It’s all about how you market yourself and it’s what you do with it.”
Seeing their hairdresser is very important to people, she said.
In the spirit of camaraderie, Ms. Kroeger said she recently paid a visit to fellow hairdresser Hannah Bellavance.
Ms. Bellavance opened her first business, Lakeside Looks, in her hometown of Greensboro, in November. She spent 12 years at The Clip Joint in Hardwick before deciding to strike out on her own.
“My daughter is 19 and in hair school, and my son is 14, so my mommy role is slimming down,” she said.
She rents out a house on the Bend Road, where the entire downstairs is devoted to salon services. She also has a tanning bed, and will soon offer facials, massages, manicures, pedicures, full body waxing, and Reiki. She has already hired her facialist, who works at Jay Peak Resort during the winter.
Six months in, business has been good.
“My days are booked,” she said. “I probably took at least 75 percent of my old clients with me, but then I have to say probably at least 50 percent of my clients are people I’ve never done before. So I’m busy.”
She is completely booked for the day of the prom. “I feel bad because all these girls are calling, but I can’t take any more. I think I’m taking my last client at like 5 p.m. on that night.”
Ms. Bellavance credits at least some of her traffic to the fact that a Hardwick hairstylist recently retired.
She didn’t fully realize just how many salons there are in the area until she looked in a local newspaper to see who advertises.
“I was blown off my feet when I saw all the salons,” she said. “I couldn’t believe how many salons.”
Like many hairstylists, she can’t say with much certainty how so many salons can co-exist, and how they can all be doing well.
A haircut is the one thing that everybody needs, she said.
And because basic hair care services are not too expensive, they’re like a treat that many people can afford, even in a bad economy, she said.
Ms. Bellavance, like other stylists, also spoke to the more personal, tactile experience of getting a haircut.
“Because of computers, there’s no face-to-face connection anymore,” she said. “They sit down and have that face-to-face with you for a half hour, and it’s like, phew, and they come back in four weeks.”
People tell their hairstylist everything, said Ms. Bellavance, and it’s part of the hairstylist’s job to keep it under her hat.
“This is like Vegas. What happens here stays here.”
That client-hairstylist relationship is an important part of what keeps a salon running.
Michelle Parenteau of My Salon and Spa in Newport said she’s had a lot of the same clients for about 20 years.
Before she bought the salon about nine years ago, she learned just how much she meant to her clients.
“I left. I kind of took a couple years off just because I got burnt out,” she said. “And I got back my whole clientele.
“You build up relationships with people. It’s not just doing their hair. We’re like psychiatrists, we just don’t get paid for it.”
Ms. Parenteau, who owns the salon with Yolande Bronson, said she doesn’t know how so many salons survive in the area.
“But apparently the area supports it,” she said. “I don’t know. It seems to work.”
She pointed out that at least one salon, Hair Lines by Tracy in Derby, did close, but an existing salon took it over.
“But you don’t hear about it too, too often,” she said, of salons closing.
My Salon and Spa is something of an institution. It used to be in a different location and was called Iola’s Salon for Ladies and Lords. In total, it’s been around about 80 years, Ms. Parenteau said.
“We have women that are 68 years old and they’re still doing hair,” she said.
My Salon and Spa employs 13 hairdressers on ten chairs, and offers all the usual hair services plus facials, massages, and body treatments.
It’s very busy, Ms. Parenteau said, especially in summer. She recalled one summer Friday when the salon performed 2,300 pedicures in a day.
My Salon and Spa stays competitive partly because of the range of spa services offered, she said, plus they’re open a lot.
“A lot of times, these little shops aren’t open much,” Ms. Parenteau said. “We have enough people working so if you need a haircut, we can fit you in within an hour or so.”
Many new salon owners are hairstylists who worked at a bigger shop, like hers, before opening up their own shop and taking their clients with them, she said.
“We have had some that have stayed with us for 20 to 50 years, but we have had some that we train them and then they go and open up their own. We send them to classes all the time, we get them all trained, and some venture out on their own.”
Cheryl Lafleur, owner of Crystal View Cuts in Barton, worked at My Salon and Spa for five years before opening her own salon.
“I was up at My Salon and Spa, and went on my own in 1990,” she said. “Not thinking anyone would follow me, because it was 20 miles, and the funny thing was, everyone followed me,” she said of her clientele.
“After a few years, some people wheedled out, but by that time, you gain new people.”
Ms. Lafleur has two chairs and offers services like cuts, color, styling, perms, manicures, facials, and waxing. Three years in, she hired another stylist to work alongside her who is still there.
“The business has been successful since day one,” she said. “It’s just worked out really well.”
She said her business is mostly by appointment because they’re so booked.
Ms. Lafleur is well aware of the number of local salons and was able to rattle off a list of them within a five-mile radius.
She had a funny story about the client-hairdresser relationship.
“We kind of laugh about this, but, when all of a sudden your hairdresser dies, you don’t think, oh I’m so sorry for your loss, you know? You think, oh my gosh who’s going to do my hair?”
Ms. Lafleur said an in-home salon can provide a decent living.
“It was a primary income for about five years,” she said of her business. “I was alone, divorced, a single mom, and you know, being able to provide for myself just doing hair, and not having to get a second job.”
Ms. Lafleur said there are many reasons why being a hairdresser is a great career choice.
“It’s such a rewarding business. I’ve never dreaded going to work. I even work on days I’m not supposed to work.”
When she was in college, people tried to talk her out of being a hairdresser, she said.
“Everybody’s telling me, don’t waste your time, that’s just for people that can’t do anything else.”
Her college counselor had her take a test — “like an SAT for hair dressing” — and showed her which schools were available.
“I applied, I was accepted, and I said, I’m going to prove everybody wrong.”
“You make it what you make it,” she said of being a hairstylist.
One reason it may feel like there are so many salons is because of the range of hours offered by different businesses, she said.
“Not everybody works full time,” she said. “You’re as busy as you want to be. And I think it depends on when you want to work. I work three nights a week until seven, then weekends. Not everybody wants to do that.”
Paulette Rogers of Glover is a part-time hairstylist. She has run Country Beauty Salon out of her home, with one chair, since 1973.
When her kids were little, she worked seven days a week, she said, but now she’s trying to retire so she just works two days a week. To that end, she stopped taking new clients two years ago. She finds it’s tough to close shop, though.
“It’s not only a job, it’s a friendship that you build, and that’s why I’m still in this business, because I can’t let these friends down by getting out,” she said. “They’re friends that you’ve made over 40, 50 years.”
On a random weekday afternoon, she’d already seen eight clients. She tends to a group of regulars throughout the year, plus more regulars from out-of-state who come up during summer.
Ms. Rogers has been doing hair since 1962 — in Barton, Newport, Montpelier, and Indiana. She knows there are a lot of salons in the area, but doesn’t think they necessarily compete with each other.
“I really don’t think that, by and large, they are competitive with each other,” she said. “I think you have a hairdresser that you go to and you like, and you like the style.”
A hairdresser’s skills are what ultimately keep a client coming back, she said, but she also agrees that the relationship with clients is a cornerstone to the business.
“Probably all of my clients, I can tell you who their kids are, where they live, if they’re having a crisis,” she said. “You’re kind of like the sounding board that doesn’t go any further.
“They always say there’s lots of gossip in the beauty shop but that’s not true. You learn their family history and all that, but it’s not gossip, because you don’t pass it on.”
She, too, spoke of the counselor-like role hairdressers say they take on.
“We don’t have a license for that, but we do have a license to put our hands on heads.”
Back in Craftsbury, Ms. Kroeger spoke at length about the relationships she’d developed over time with clients.
“You are like a confidant,” she said. “Some people don’t have a best friend or a friend. It’s amazing the bond that is built with your hairdresser.”
That role has even got her thinking that she might try to become a life coach.
“I just want people to feel good. So if that’s the next step in my career, I may look into that.”
Ms. Kroeger said she still hears from clients in Florida.
She estimates that she’s had thousands of clients over the course of her career. They’ve enriched her life, she said, because those people are like her encyclopedia on human nature.
“You’ll become a good conversationalist,” she said, on becoming a hairdresser. “You have the opportunity to touch on so many topics.”
An off-the-top-of-the-head summary of Ms. Kroeger’s past clients includes the 1986 Miss Universe, Barbara Palacios, rock stars, social workers, battered women….
“One really important thing about the relationship with your client is that it’s almost character building because you’re exposed to so many opinions,” Ms. Kroeger said.
“And so, if you’re intuitive and a sensitive person, which a lot of us are, because we’re artistic, you’re always learning about yourself through others,” she said. “It’s like raising your children — that happens when you raise children, too.”
Her career has been mostly about helping people tap into their inner beauty and build up their confidence, she said.
“Like getting someone to embrace their crazy curly hair,” she said. “I’ve had so many people like that, trying to force something that doesn’t fit.”
Hairdressing has given her a chance to work within the larger community, too.
In Florida, she worked with women in distress who were returning to the workforce, to help them achieve a more professional look.
“I mean, that’s really gratifying,” she said.
Ms. Bellavance also uses her hair skills to help out in her hometown. She spends every Friday morning doing hair at the Greensboro Nursing Home.
“It’s my good deed to the world,” Ms. Bellavance said. “It makes me feel good afterwards, because it makes them feel so good.”
Ms. Kroeger spoke of her experience with a portrait of the Somali-born women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali hanging on a nearby wall. Ms. Kroeger painted the portrait herself, from a magazine cover.
“You’re in the business of making people feel good,” she said. “That’s amazing. Maybe that’s why people like hairdressers.”
“It’s a great career!” Ms. Kroeger said, emphatically. “It’s artistic, and you can go anywhere with it, because most people get haircuts.”
She thought that was probably why there are so many salons around.
“At one point or another, I think everybody gets a haircut.”
contact Natalie Hormilla at email@example.com