Longtime Hillcrest salon prevails past obstacles and business woes
By Monica Garske | SDUN Reporter
The last several months have been a difficult and uncertain time for Hairspray, a longtime salon in the heart of Hillcrest. But despite an avalanche of obstacles, the business located at 141 University Ave. is here to stay.
So says Hairspray owner Annie Hartigan, who has been putting up a fight for some time to save her salon from mounting, seemingly never-ending financial hardship.
Hartigan, an eyebrow-waxing specialist, has worked at Hairspray since 1997, when the salon was called Hairspray Tan America. In 2000, Hartigan said that the previous owners filed for bankruptcy and, at the advice of her husband at the time, Hartigan spent her life savings to buy the salon.
Upon taking over, Hartigan said she got a crash course in becoming a business owner.
She quickly learned the previous owners had not kept proper records, and Hairspray was not yielding profits.
In order to stay afloat, Hartigan said she had to take out loans and revamp the salon. She got rid of several tanning beds taking up space, and built more stations that she could then rent out to hairstylists.
Hartigan said that after those business decisions, Hairspray – complete with a new, catchy tagline as a “high-energy, snob-free salon” – soared, becoming a Hillcrest beauty staple.
“During our heyday, from 2000 to about 2006, we had 18 full-time hairstylists and could afford the whole, massive 3,000 square feet of space. We were doing great and had huge floats in the Hillcrest Pride parade and life was good,” she said.
But sometimes, things that rise can inevitably fall.
After enjoying a period of success, Hartigan said her salon was hit hard by the dwindling economy. After the economy tanked, so did her business, as well as her marriage.
“My husband of 20 years relapsed and everything was a mess. Then he just left … and I just didn’t know how to run my business anymore,” she said.
Hartigan said her husband went to Hawaii in March 2011, taking all of their money with him. He said he would be back in several months, but never returned.
With her marriage and business in shambles, Hartigan said she resorted to using an emergency credit card she kept hidden at home, behind her wedding picture.
She used the card to pay salon bills and makeover the space in hopes of attracting hairstylists and patrons.
Hartigan said one of her hairdressers then became a manager, taking over the bookkeeping and helping her run the salon.
But it simply was not enough.
“That first year alone, 2011, was a big struggle. I lost $30,000 that year,” she said.
In 2012, Hartigan said she continued to lose hairstylists and money, and again, her salon was caught in an overwhelming downward spiral.
“I just thought, ‘I can’t keep up; I’m drowning.’ It was awful,” she said.
The bad times continued for Hartigan through the fall of 2012, with health issues, personal problems and more business woes piling up.
Though at her wit’s end physically, emotionally, mentally and financially, Hartigan – who considers herself a fighter – pressed on.
“I didn’t want to sell the salon because I was always hopeful that things would get better,” she said. “Something told me to keep going.”
During the 2012 holiday season, with Hairspray on the brink of closing its doors, Hartigan said she lost the majority of her longtime stylists and her salon manager, who moved on to other projects.
With most of her staff gone, she thought for sure it was the end of the line for Hairspray. But then her remaining staff banded together and refused to throw in the towel.
Hartigan said hairstylist Tony Serafini, who has been working at Hairspray for 15 years, told her he would stay at the salon, no matter what. In solidarity, her front desk manager, Elise Woodall, and stylist Alison Mattazaro, also vowed to stay by her side.
With the small crew supporting her, Hartigan said she went to her tiny brow-waxing room upstairs in the salon and began to pray, looking at photographs of her grandmother, Gladys, for inspiration.
After that serious prayer session, Hartigan said she experienced a series of events that she likens to the Christmas film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“I hadn’t prayed in 30 years, but that day I prayed to God like George Bailey from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ which is my favorite movie,” she said. “And I said, ‘I haven’t prayed in 30 years, but if you’re there will you please, please help me?’ Then I started shaking, and eventually calmed down.”
By the first week of January – with ominous “for lease” signs lining the windows of the salon – things began turning around.
Hartigan said Mattazaro posted an ad on Craigslist seeking new hairstylists to rent out booths and work at Hairspray. The ad resulted in three applications – something Hartigan said had not happened in years.
After that, Hartigan received a message from a former Hairspray receptionist who said he heard about the salon’s financial troubles. He offered money to help.
“It was almost like George Bailey and Sam Wainwright in the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ [when Sam offers to save George's business]. It was crazy,” Hartigan said.
Then, a slew of other good people from her past started coming back into her life, offering to put up money to help save her business.
And, while Hartigan said she could not bring herself to accept money from friends, she saw the string of offerings as a sign that she was meant to keep her salon going, somehow and in some way.
“That’s when I said mentally, ‘Okay, you don’t have to knock me over the head. I know this is you,’” Hartigan said. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to save the salon.’”
On Jan. 7, Hartigan announced to her remaining staff that they would not be closing.
Several former employees reached out to Hartigan and came back to work. With that and some new applicants, Hartigan began to rebuild her styling staff.
She took out a loan, repainted the walls and added more styling stations upstairs, as well as a spa area for facials, manicures and pedicures.
She even dug out the original “Hairspray: A high-energy, snob-free salon” business banner first displayed 13 years ago, and hung it back up on an awning outside the shop.
Months later, Hartigan said there is a new buzz in the air and Hairspray is here to stay.
She now has several full-time stylists on staff, including Serafini and Mattazaro as well as Larry Kuse, Carlos Vasquez and Sean Kerr. Chevy Cathcart handles facial, manicures and pedicures, while Woodall runs the front desk.
And Hartigan, feeling like a guardian angel has given a second chance, still does eyebrows fulltime for more than 500 clients.
“There’s fresh energy in here. It’s a wonderful life, and it’s a wonderful salon,” she said.
Moving forward, Hartigan said she plans to finish building more stations so she can add additional hairstylists to her growing Hairspray family, whom she affectionately refers to as her “Hair Bears.”
In time, she said she hopes to rebuild Hairspray into the bustling salon she believes it is meant to be – with her loyal Hair Bears by her side in the Uptown community she loves.
For more information about Hairspray, including salon hours and services, visit hairspray-sd.com or call 619-297-9333.