Kids' salons make their mark

Posted: Thursday, May 17, 2001

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Flailing arms, wriggling bodies and lots of tears are enough to discourage any parent from giving a child a much-needed haircut. So when it comes to taming tangles and snipping split ends, Bay Area moms and dads increasingly turn to kids-only hair salons to do the job for them.

Becky Harris, 45, of Castro Valley vows that her first experience cutting her son Kyle's hair was the last. Harris couldn't find blunt-cut scissors at the store, so she tentatively tried using a standard, sharp pair.

''It was so scary -- the crying and the hands up and the screaming,'' Harris says. ''I leave it now to the professionals.''

She now drives Kyle 40 miles round trip every six weeks to Shear Adventures in Danville, where most clients are 1 to 8 years old. Jungle-inspired murals cover the walls, a toy plane and Barbie doll invite play on the floor and children's videos play non-stop overhead.

''I tell (friends) it's a drive, but it's worth it,'' says Harris, as Kyle, 2, sits quietly nearby while stylist Sheila Montano clips his straight dark hair.

The pros know what it takes to get a squirming child to hold still long enough for a trim or a cutting-edge style.

''You want to play with an Etch-a-Sketch, a nice pink one?'' Montano asks one little girl. ''See, that's how you get their head down.''

Speed is also essential. The attention span of young clients ends at about the seven-minute mark, Montano says.

It's not a job for the faint-hearted, says Darlene Bahmanyar, who started Snippety Crickets in Berkeley six years ago.

''It takes a special person to work with kids,'' Bahmanyar says. ''They have to be better than other hair cutters when the kid's moving.''

Bubbles, lollipops, Sesame Street videos and ''fairy dust'' -- also known as sparkling hair gel -- fill the arsenal of children's stylists.

Patience, a sense of fun and boundless affection for kids give them the stamina to overcome the constant challenges presented by clients as young as 18 months.

When a frightened tyke shies away from a scissors-wielding stranger at Cool Tops Cuts for Kids in Lafayette, stylist Nora Hoang breaks out a pair of plastic scissors and a comb and lets the youngster practice on her hair.

''That works -- and bubbles and videos (like) Elmo,'' Hoang says. ''Young toddlers don't understand the concept of a haircut.''

Gina Armstrong-Smith, a former corporate strategist at The Gap, opened the salon in September with the philosophy that keeping children distracted would make the experience less intimidating and more fun.

She also wanted to make parents comfortable by offering them their own seating area with magazines. A nearby play area stocked with books, puzzles and dolls keeps younger siblings occupied during the appointment.

Armstrong-Smith also figures she'll build a solid repeat customer base if youngsters enjoy salon visits from the start. So little ones getting their first haircuts become the center of attention.

''We call it 'First Ever' haircuts,'' she says. ''We give them a certificate. We take a Polaroid photo and then we get a little swatch of their hair and attach it to the certificate.''

As a further enticement, chairs at three hair cutting stations come in the shape of a motorcycle, a pony and a Volkswagen Beetle.

At Just Kids Cuts & Beauty Market in Burlingame, salon owner Dawn Longmore went cosmic with the decor when she opened shop in August.

Several seats look like rocket ships, giant foam planets dangle from the ceiling and each station features monitors at kids' eye-level where they can play video games or watch the Cartoon Channel.

''What we tried to do is create an environment they are familiar with,'' Longmore says. ''When kids come in, they literally shoot to the back in front of their moms.''

When visiting a kids-only salon, expect to pay around $15 to $17 for a haircut and about half that price for a bangs trim.

It's also a good idea to book early, since appointments can fill up fast at established salons. And if mom or dad needs a haircut, many children's salons will accommodate them -- provided they're not looking for a new color.

''Hair color is trickier than you would think,'' Longmore explains. ''When you put (chemicals) on the head, it reacts.''

Dealing with a bad reaction on an adult's scalp is regrettable but manageable, she says. Coping with a distressed child's reaction is better avoided.

Taking such precautions has earned kids-only salons a warm spot in the heart of protective parents -- and increased foot traffic to such shops.

In the past four years, salon equipment manufacturer Galaxy Enterprises -- which supplied the novelty chairs at Cool Tops -- has seen demand for children-related products double. And business grows each year, a company spokesman says.

Cool Tops owner Armstrong-Smith doesn't know whether children's salons are on the rise, but their target market of youths from infants to 14 years old are underserved, she says.

''The growth in this age segment is growing faster than the total population,'' Armstrong-Smith says.

She hopes to expand to several locations and perhaps one day start a national franchise -- something that doesn't exist.

In the meantime, devotees of neighborhood shops will keep making the trek -- sometimes hundreds of miles -- to bring their children to trusted stylists.

Lori Baril, 33, of Roseville regularly brings her daughter, Karlee, 3, to Shear Adventures. After trying three salons closer to home without success, Baril decided it was worth driving 190 miles every few weeks to visit Montano.

Baril never considered trimming Karlee's straight tawny hair herself.

''You have got to be kidding me,'' she says. ''I probably couldn't cut a straight line.''

Karlee appears to agree.

When Baril volunteers to snip her daughter's locks, Karlee slightly rolls her eyes and offers up an incredulous smile.

''No,'' she giggles, turning away. ''You don't know how.''

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