Each week during the month of July, we've plugged into the Castro’s barbershop talk by touching base with a neighborhood hair salon. Thanks for joining us as we've shared what’s going on in residents' heads—by connecting with the people that wash, trim, and style the hair on top of them.
Helen Woo, the manager of Face It Salon & Spa, hasn’t taken a vacation in seven years. A sick day? Nope. Woo consistently works ten-hour days and is dumbfounded as to why she has to work more now than she did 20 years ago. “I don’t know what happened,” said Woo. “I feel like I have to work even harder to maintain the shop.”
Woo came to San Francisco in 1976 from Hong Kong. “As an immigrant,” said Woo, “you pretty much go where your family is and you’re stuck there.” She feels lucky that her sister was already settled in the city. After having the chance to travel to other cities around the country, including a two-year stint in Los Angeles for art school, Woo claims that she enjoys the character of San Francisco best.
When Woo returned to San Francisco in 1984 from her art program in Pasadena, she began cutting hair in the Marina, but she found herself devoting too much of her time to work instead of her art. “I wanted to get some money and not live the life of a poor artist,” laughed Woo, who now lives in the Sunset District. Someone recommended to her that she should move from her small setup and into a more commercial hairdressing space. In principle, the move would afford her the chance to sell merchandise and to devote more time to her painting.
In 1998, Woo learned that the owner of a Castro salon called Face It was looking for a hairdresser to manage its operations. She connected with her eventual business partner and moved herself and her customers from the Marina to a tiny space on Market Street. Woo continued to cut hair even as she stepped more into her managerial role. She described managing the original small salon on Market as a much easier task than Face It’s current location across the street (the salon moved in 2005).
With Face It’s leap to the other side of Market Street came seven hairdressers, three estheticians, and three manicurists. Face It’s good fortunes surged into 2007. “We got so busy that people started wanting to open their own businesses and move away, which was fine,” said Woo. “It wasn’t bad until 2009 and the economy crashed. It really hasn’t come back for us.”
Woo still has has a couple of estheticians and manicurists on staff, but she’s down to just one other hairdresser besides herself. “Today, it’s difficult to get good people to work,” said Woo. According her, she’s seen a 360-degree change over the past three years in both applicants and employees at Face It. She’s had employees stay for two weeks and leave, job applicants stand her up for scheduled interviews, and hired staff walk away from the job without saying ‘goodbye.’
According to Woo, before, if a hairdresser left to go set up her own shop, she would be thoughtful about where other salons were already located in the city. “If you were a hairdresser and you left a salon,” explained Woo, “you couldn’t set up shop within five miles of your previous employer—it was part of your contract. But now, they can set up shop and take your customers. These Castro barbershops? More of ten of them used to be my people.”
Woo doesn’t agree with how City Hall currently manages small businesses. “In ‘84, when I opened my shop in the Marina, the city told me to make sure that there wasn’t another similar business on my block. ‘If you’re close, you’ll compete,’” she said. “Small businesses were really booming at that time. Now? Shops that do the same thing are opening right next to each other and the city doesn’t care.” According to Woo, the new skin store a block away from Face It sells the same skin product brand as her and takes upwards of $3,000 in revenue away from her each month. “Just that location alone,” said Woo, “not to mention that there are six salons on this block. Everybody’s fighting for crumbs, it’s ridiculous.”
Woo similarly expressed frustration towards the tech industry. “The companies give employees so many benefits,” lamented Woo. “They can get a haircut at work, their teeth cleaned, lunch, dry cleaning, dog walking, daycare. They don’t help the local economy.” She compared the current industry trends to the dotcom days, stating that “the dotcom companies didn’t support their employees that way. So they had to go out for lunch and dinner, had to groom,” said Woo. “We had so many customers. I’ve hoped every year since 2009 that something will change, but I feel like it’s even worse today.”
“I have a 25-year-old customer who’s making $250,000,” said Woo. “It’s those kind of imbalances that are shrinking small businesses. The companies should use that money to funnel it back into the local economy.”
When asked about how the Castro has changed since she first moved her business into the neighborhood 17 years ago, Woo promptly responded “a lot.” According to Woo, people used to be friendlier around the neighborhood. “People would smile at you on the street,” she said. “It was just like a neighborhood should be. Now, people are more bitter, always complaining. Me too, I hear myself complaining and before, it wasn’t like that.”
Even though Woo still has Face It customers from her days in the Marina in the ‘80s, she said that many of her customers didn’t like where the Castro was heading as a neighborhood and decided to move out. “My customers feel like they’re being squeezed out. And honestly,” said Woo, “ I feel the same way. Now, I come to work and I go home. I don’t stay.”
Woo would like to see the city’s supervisors take on more of a volunteer role to San Francisco. “Our city is run by the politicians,” said Woo. “In the ‘80s, they paid the supervisors peanuts, but their hearts were in it and they wanted their city to be good. Now, they pay them so much, plus give them four aides to help them do their work. They’ve become professional politicians, and if that’s their job, they’re going to make sure that their job lasts. They put themselves first.”
Woo struggled to be optimistic about the future, but said that she hopes that people in the Castro can become more friendly again. “That’s what made San Francisco beautiful. It accepts people of all different kinds.” To Woo, she is living the American dream, but she is working for it. “As long as you work hard, you have focus, you want to achieve certain, achievable things, you will get it,” said Woo.
One of Woo’s favorite things about hairdressing is it all allows her to be open and honest with her customers. “A lot of my customers tell me that I’m better than their psychiatrists,” said Woo, “and I say ‘of course I am! I don’t charge, so I can say whatever I want.’”