Punctuated by the snip-snip-snip of scissors, the dialogue between Pauline Skinner and Stylarama “operator” Sherry Armstrong touches on most every subject.
They talk about what’s in the freezer. They chitchat about cooking. They ponder what’s been getting at the tomatoes (“probably deer”) and discuss the latest capers of Skinner’s 12-year-old dachshund, Maxie.
“(Armstrong) knows my problems and knows I got a dog that’s a lot of trouble,” Skinner says as Armstrong locks a dozen rollers in place against Skinner’s scalp, an all-but-forgotten technique known as wet setting.
Skinner stands up, and Armstrong leads her to a row of hooded hair dryers, each whirring with a steady white noise interrupted only when Whitney Houston hits a high note or Cyndi Lauper squeals from the ceiling-mounted speakers.
The chemical tang of hair product, whoosh of warm water in the sink, the walls of mirrors that surround them — this is all Armstrong and colleagues Linda Gilleland and Carol Ransom have ever known. And they love it.
It’s a place where they can thrive. It’s more than a livelihood for the trio of hair stylists; it’s life itself. Imagine the turmoil they felt, the anguish, when these women learned their salon was closing its doors at the end of June after more than 40 years in business.
‘We’ve got room in the back’
“A lot of our customers have passed away or gone into nursing homes or assisted living,” Armstrong said. “That was one reason Bob (Johnson) had to close Stylarama, because we had lost so many customers that way.”
For those reasons as well as health problems, the owner closed down the longtime salon at 1290 Thompson Bridge Road.
But there was a silver lining.
Precision Hair Kutters, located for decades right next door to Stylarama, had some space available. Tommy Gooch, who owns the former, didn’t want to see these three stylists — or “operators” — lose their jobs.
Gooch, who has owned Precision Hair Kutters since 1973, said he was sympathetic.
“Bob closed Stylarama, and Carol, Linda and Sherry back there weren’t ready to retire,” Gooch said, pointing a finger toward a corner room of Precision Hair Kutters. “I told them, ‘Well, we’ve got room in the back.’”
The women now occupy a small space in the back of Precision Hair Kutters, where they continue serving their clients.
Operator Carol Ransom, who had worked at Stylarama for 25 years, said the move was “wonderful, because we already had a good rapport (with Precision), and we’re just right next door now. None of our customers panicked, because it’s just one door over.
“It was very gracious of (Gooch) to allow us to move over here,” Ransom said. “It’s been a blessing. I don’t know where we would have gone or what we would have done.”
Armstrong admits it does feel a little awkward being in the new space after working in the same place four decades, but “I’m glad I was able to keep working.”
Still waiting on Skinner’s hair to dry, Armstrong picks up a dog-eared paperback Sudoku book. With a dull pencil, she scratches her way through a puzzle as the hooded hair dryer does its job.
‘A lost art’
The equipment and terminology — operators, sit-down dryers, rollers, wet setting and, one could argue, even the name “Stylarama” — all belong to another time.
Gooch said the service these former Stylarama stylists provide “is kind of a lost art. A lot of people won’t do these kinds of styles anymore, or use these methods.”
“They’ve got clients who have been with them forever for that very reason,” Gooch said, adding there are a couple of 100-year-olds who frequent the salon.
Among them: Centenarian Frances Haynes of Gainesville, who has been going to Stylarama nearly 20 years.
“I feel better when I come here, and I imagine I look better, too,” Haynes said, laughing. “I don’t know what on earth I’d do without Carol (Ransom).”
When Haynes learned Stylarama was moving one door over, she told her operator “You mean all I got to do is go next door? I’m going wherever you go, Carol. Nobody else can take care of me like her.”
That, Gooch said, is what sets his business apart.
“Our clients and the clients of Stylarama, they get into this routine where they’ve been going to somebody for a long time,” he said. “You get to know them. You become friends with them.”
He said some of the older clients will come to get their hair cut once a week, some more often. Evelyn Hancock of Gainesville is one who comes to Armstrong once a week.
“She gets a roller set,” Armstrong says, removing rollers from Hancock’s hair. “We tease it all together, then comb it down. It stays that way for a week.”
Interjects Hancock: “I could probably go two weeks. Sherry does a good job.”
Skinner certainly seems to think so. She swears by Sherry Armstrong.
“She does a wonderful job, and she’s a wonderful friend. She’s a good operator,” Skinner said, putting great emphasis on the word “good,” savoring the syllable.
Skinner, who has “seen Thompson Bridge Road go from a blacktop road to a five-lane highway,” spent most of her life cutting her own hair.
“I always done it myself before, but my rheumatism got a-hold of my hand, and I couldn’t do it anymore,” Skinner said.
Gooch is quick to stress that it’s not only the elderly who visit Precision Hair Kutters. Quite the contrary.
“We cut hair for all ages and all walks of life,” Gooch said. “We do all of the modern, up-to-date stuff as well as hair coloring and so on. It’s not just old folks over here. Our place is a combination of old and new styles.”
Worth noting: Gov. Nathan Deal gets his hair cut there — he has done so since the 1970s — as does state Sen. Butch Miller.
Small talk and more
Amidst the whirring of hooded blow dryers and whooshing of warm water in the sink, conversations are taking place that are neither meaningless small talk nor serious discussion.
It’s something in-between.
“Put it this way: We talk about lots of things,” said Linda Gilleland raising her eyebrows.
Brenda Williams, who has been coming to Gilleland 45 years now, said she figures they know plenty enough about each other. “More than most friends probably know,” Williams said.
Ransom probably knows enough about 100-year-old Haynes to write a book.
“I do feel like I learn something new every time we talk,” Ransom said.
Same thing with Armstrong and Skinner.
“She’s a wonderful friend,” Skinner shouts over the stream of air rushing against her head.
At this, Armstrong glances up at the clock, sets down her book and ambles over.
Skinner sits down in the chair, and Armstrong tightens a piece of cloth over Skinner’s shoulders to keep the clippings off her clothes. She unwinds the wisps of hair from more than a dozen rollers and swivels the chair to face the mirror.
And, they talk about tomatoes. They talk about squash. They gripe about garden pests. And they discuss that elderly dachshund, Maxie.
It’s this level of care, Gooch said, that has for 40 years brought customers to both Stylarama and Precision Hair Kutters.
“It’s more than just a haircut,” he said. “It’s personal.”