With money tight, customers are settling for fewer ‘wash and sets’
By Michel Ovalle
The heavy drumbeat of Merengue music, the buzz of a hair dryer and the splashing of water merge to greet customers when they walk into Sira’s Unisex, a longtime presence on Hunts Point Avenue.
Its owner, Cynthia de la Cruz, is a Dominican immigrant who purchased what used to be a barber shop more than 20 years ago.
But the nation’s economic woes are having an impact even on successful businesses like hers.
“People don’t come and get their hair done as much as they used to, because they have no money for it,” de la Cruz said. In an attempt to maintain her clients as well as to attract new ones, De la Cruz has lowered prices.
“Before the recession, we opened at 7:30 am every day and closed at 11 p.m.,” said Sandra Cleto, a hairstylist who has worked at Sira Unisex for 10 years. “When we arrived, there were already people lined up outside”
Now, the four stylists have cut back on their schedules. Several months ago, they began taking turns taking leaves of absence. “I can go to the Dominican Republic for four months and still have my job when I come back,” said Cleto.
On a recent visit, though, the remaining stylists had their hands full. One was washing hair near the back. De la Cruz was applying hair dye on a client, as she joined in the conversation. Other women quietly waited their turn, as they flipped through magazines.
The salon still has a loyal clientele, Cleto said. Most of the customers are African American women or Latinas of all ages. Most come for a “wash and set,” which consists of washing the hair, putting it up in rollers and then blowing it out.
Many clients live outside neighborhood, the borough and even the state. “When the clients move out of Hunts Point, they still come back to the salon,” said Cleto.
Twenty-eight year old Franchely, who didn’t provide her last name, has been a hairdresser in Hunts Point for six years. De la Cruz hired her two years ago, when business was booming.
Franchely was working on Christina, an 18-year-old Hunts Point resident, who asked that her last name not be published. Humming along with the music as she twisted Christina’s hair into rollers, Franchely reflected on the economic downturn. She used to work six days a week. Now, “Business has slowed down a lot. It was good on a daily basis, but not anymore,” she said. “I see most of my clients weekly or bi-weekly now,” she said.
Sira’s Unisex’s proximity to the subway makes it easy for commuting customers. The stylists agree that their location is an important factor in their success.
Anesha, a 24-year-old Harlem resident, who didn’t want her last name published, has been a client for two years. She travels north to Hunts Point every two weeks to get her “wash and set,” and says the end result is always worth the extra time and the commute. “I tried around my way but it’s not the same,” she said.
Most customers of Sira’s Unisex find it through word of mouth. Friends referred Candice Mcgill, 21, to the salon about four years ago. “My friends have been coming here for many years and they told me to give it a try,” she said. “I’ve been coming here ever since.”
Now, Mcgill is away at school, but whenever she returns to the neighborhood, she comes to Sira Unisex. “Because of the economy, my roommate does my hair now when I’m in Maryland,” she said. “I get my hair done here because it’s much cheaper and I’m always happy with the way my hair turns out.”
Because of the economy, Christina has cut down on her visits to the salon. Instead of getting her hair done every week, as she used to, she said, “I get my hair done every two weeks or every month now.”
But she won’t forsake Sira’s. Although there are several salons closer to her home, she said, “I like coming here because the hairdressers are nice and the prices are good.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 2009 issue of The Hunts Point Express.