(Editor-at-Large Walter Wasacz writes a weekly column on life in Hamtramck.)
By Walter Wasacz
In 2001, when my mother decided to close her shop — Edwin Beauty Salon — after decades of business in our Hamtramck neighborhood, we had some decisions to make.
What to do with a space with strong commercial potential that we still considered a strong asset to the community, but which in its present state had run its course? My mom, Helen Wasacz, was still in good health at age 81, but many of her customers had moved or passed away.
The very style of her work — washing and setting hair for women who came in week after week after week for nearly 40 years — was long past being fashionable. It was time for her to retire.
The storefront that my dad converted in the early 1960s from a butcher shop (Joe’s Grocery for anyone around back then or those interested in trivia) stood empty for over a year. I knew first hand that a very good local stylist, Sandra Kramer, was unhappily employed by a high-end salon in Birmingham.
How did I know?
She was cutting my hair, and dozens of others, in her kitchen after she came home from a workday in the burbs.
Wow, she was good.
Plus she and her husband, Jim Shaw, are a terrific couple, connected to talented people not only in Hamtramck, but across Detroit and other cities in the U.S. and overseas. They could live just about anywhere but they chose to buy a house here and get involved in making this town a better place. I sensed my mom, Sandy and Jim would take to each other. How quickly and solidly the bond was formed — and still remains — I couldn’t predict.
“I found a friend, I found family here,” says Kramer, sitting on a purple love seat in a corner of the salon she re-named Barberalla when the shop re-opened in November 2002. Seated at her side, my mom looked at her younger friend and says, “she brought class to our house. She took what I had and made it into a fantastic business. People come from all over to see Sandy because she’s so good. And because she’s a lovely person.”
When the two get together — which is often; Kramer comes back to my mom’s kitchen for beer or ice cubes all the time — it’s easy to spot the fondness the two have for each other. The connection is genuine. It feels like family for all of us.
In 2003, the Free Press did a profile on the friendship that developed between my mom and Kramer and the passing of the torch from one generation to the next. The business has been featured in several magazines over the last seven-and-a-half years.
Barberella is indeed a fantastic place. Shaw, Kramer and some of their talented friends renovated and reconditioned a humble corner shop into a work of art. They did it in simple ways, by exposing an original tin ceiling that had been hidden (though nicely preserved) since 1963 and then they painted it pink. The walls directly below became a vibrant shade of mauve. They put in new hardwood flooring, mirrors and lighting. Fashion photographers have done shoots there. Her clients include Detroit and national rock musicians, award-winning painters and writers, models and actors, lawyers and doctors, university profs and politicians.
Kramer doesn’t want to name her clients but I used to see a certain world famous Detroit-born garage blues guitarist who moved to Nashville a few years ago regularly coming into the shop to get his hair straightened. He’s one of Conan O’Brien’s favorite performers and has been known to pal around with Keith Richards, Jimmy Page and The Edge. That’s not giving away too much, is it?
But Barberella is more than just a magnet for sexy creatives. Plenty of moms with kids and dogs, ordinary working dudes and neighborhood people have found their comfort zone here. It’s a near-perfect model for how to do an independent business in a unique town like Hamtramck, where all roads lead.
“When you do things like Sandy does, the people will find you,” my mom says.
“I found you, that’s what makes all of this possible,” Kramer says.
This story — of a small business, unified by friendship and family — was sweet from the beginning. It only gets sweeter with time.