A quick search produces nearly 40 places on Capitol Hill where you can find someone to do something to your hair. From full blown salons to one-man barbers, the variety of hair businesses are a major part of life on the Hill and the neighborhood’s urban landscape.
We checked in with three local shop owners to discuss the business side of hair on Capitol Hill.
Bianca Brookman is a Capitol Hill hair veteran who’s been working in the neighborhood since the 1980s. In 1998 she opened Aria Salon at 11th and Pike. Three years ago, with rents on the rise and the economy souring, Brookman made the move to her current location at 1318 Pike.
Downsizing from 12 chairs to 10, Brookman said most customers prefer the cozier environment. While Aria maintains a reasonable $65 price point for women and a more relaxed vibe than its downtown counterparts, it still prides itself on high-end treatments. “We like to schedule by appointment, it’s more of a pampering experience.”
Aria has six hair stylists, one waxer, and an eyelash/extensions stylist that was added last year. The shop no longer has space for nail service, instead referring customers next door to Polished Boutique Spa.
The rise of the old-school barbershop has perhaps been the most dramatic change for neighborhood hair options.
The arrival of Rudy’s in the 90s made a significant impact in the local industry, much to the surprise of salon owners like Brookman. Others attribute the popularity of the throw-back barber less to Rudy’s, and more to customers’ changing lifestyles and time constraints.
“People are a lot more comfortable with the barbershop because it’s simpler and easier,” says Raven shop owner Raven Myrick. “People are working more and longer hours, so they need to be more spontaneous.”
“Barbershops are definitely making a huge comeback,” says Acme owner Kevin Johnson. “The only thing slowing it down is the lack of barber schools … that training is a lot more focused on hair cutting and use of a straight razor.”
When Acme opened in June 2004 at 103 Bellevue, Johnson said it was a true unisex shop. “Today it’s very much a barbershop, and we’re going more in that direction,” he says, with men making up roughly 90 percent of customers.
This isn’t Johnson or Myrick’s first rodeo. Johnson moved Acme onto the Hill in 2004, when he decided he needed more exposure then his Lower Queen Anne shop was offering. Before opening Raven at 1213 Pine in 2010, Myrick owned two Seattle shops in the 90s, but couldn’t sustain.
“At first I had the dream of opening several shops. This time I’m happy with one. I’m letting it grow organically, taking my time, even with advertising.”
Most owners seem to agree the changing demographics — from grunge and punk to yuppie and techie — have been mostly a boon for the neighborhood hair industry. On the barber side, Johnson says a lot more men are wearing traditional cuts over “colors and faux-hawks.” And the salon market, once dominated by downtown chains, has found a growing clientele on the Hill. In addition to Aria, CHS advertiser Red Chair Salon and Studio 229 offer a range of salon services.
While the salons still rely on women to bring in the bank, Brookman said men are increasingly a part of her business. “We have a huge male clientele. You would expect men to go to barbershops, but men want style too, not just clipper cuts.”
Beyond the salon/barber camps, you’ll find a fair amount of variety in how the businesses themselves are structured.
At Acme, the 15 working independent contractors keep 70% of what they take in and pay 30 percent to the shop. For Johnson, the major benefit of leasing space over hiring employees is less paperwork. Contractors are also responsible for their own schedules.
Raven has a mix of contractors and employees. Both work roughly the same amount, with Myrick setting the schedule so clients who want a specific barber know when to come in. Contractors pay the shop a monthly rent, which Myrick uses as a stable revenue source to keep the lights on. “The employees allow me to make more money,” he says.
Unlike most of the industry, Myrick doesn’t take percentage from contractors — after working nine years at Rudy’s he says he was “tired of giving away half of what I made (to the owner).”
Aria has a few employees, but is primarily a lease salon. “It’s for people who want their own business, but don’t want the overhead,” Brookman says. Contractors at Aria are responsible for their own bookings, many of them opting for online reservations.
Having a phone filled with a gang of loyal customers who will follow you from shop to shop can be the lifeblood for independent contractors. Shop owners say it can be a determining factor when deciding who to take on as a new leaser, especially when competition is tight.
Product sales may be a distant secondary income for shop owners, but they say it can be a good selling point for their business. Myrick says he’s focusing on expanding his product line in the near future. Others have branched out even further into retail and other revenue generators, like Hardware’s recent expansion into clothing and gifts.
For 9-to-5ers, getting a quick walk-in isn’t always in the cards. At Acme, customers can stroll in as late as 10P for a weekday cut. Myrick says he hopes to push back his 8P closing time another hour in the near future.
Given a great haircut by a personable stylist, sometimes it’s the little things that can make a shop standout: Acme’s people-watching corner space and pool table; Arias’ ever-changing local art displays; or Raven’s bomb magazine selection featuring, among others, Playboy and Playgirl (you know, for the articles).