The Leader Beauty Shop, a Fairfax Avenue institution where ladies of a certain age have been getting their hair and nails done since 1946, is closing its doors in September.
No longer will clients sit for hours and gab in curlers under rows of cone-shaped Belvedere hair dryers.
No longer will 51-year-old owner Gene Holt cut hair in running shorts and a sleeveless muscle man shirt.
“I was trying to get some younger customers in here,” joked Holt, who wears a jewel in one ear. “It didn’t work.”
But it was not the age of his customers that made him decide to close the black-fronted beauty parlor with its glass chandeliers and the murals of the Eiffel Tower, ancient Greece and a Polynesian isle.
It was land values along the busy avenue of bargains that forced the sale, said Holt, who announced his intentions to close in early June.
And even though his beauty parlor is distinctive for its shiny, black-glass facade, and for its tower with the letters L-E-A-D-E-R, and for its coiffed neon heads of a handsome couple on a barber pole, it isn’t making enough money, Holt said.
His two small lots have been valued at $1.5 million, he said. An investment of that scale should be making a profit of at least $150,000 a year, but he finds it hard to break even.
“We don’t pay rent, but there wouldn’t be any money to pay rent if we had to,” Holt said.
Soaking Their Feet
That hardly seems likely on a busy Friday morning, when the 55 hair dryers are occupied by women getting manicures, soaking their feet or talking about grandchildren.
The parking lot is full. The beauticians’ stations along the mirrored walls are filled by operators from half a dozen countries. The phone rings with calls seeking appointments.
But the 5,000-square-foot shop, known informally as Leader’s, is virtually empty early in the week. And Holt said that the cost of doing business has gone up faster than his prices in a neighborhood where many of the residents barely get by on their Social Security checks.
“The real estate is so valuable that it’s not worth keeping the business going,” Holt said. “There are other family members involved, and nobody else is getting anything out of it. All the money is going back into the business. In a smaller place it could go on but the overhead’s just too big.”
Holt charges $8.50 for a shampoo and set. Other places in the area ask more, but the low end of his market has been lured away by the Marinello School of Beauty just up the street, where a shampoo and set at the hands of a student costs $3.95, or $3.50 on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.
The popularity of nail shops and hand-held blow dryers have made Leader’s look old-fashioned, which doesn’t bother hundreds of regular customers.
Some of them remember the original location in Boyle Heights, where Holt’s father, Abe, opened his beauty salon and barbershop in the early 1920s.
Some followed their favorite hairdressers when they left, after Holt said he would close his doors Sept. 2. Six hairdressers and one manicurist departed last week, leaving the shop that once boasted of 35 operators and 11 manicurists with a staff of eight hairdressers, four manicurists and two receptionists.
But others hung on, loyal to their weekly coffee klatches and not yet ready to give up the habits of decades.
“Everybody knows everybody here,” said receptionist Esther Laufe. “We keep the same customers till they’re gone. They just don’t like to leave here.”
“It’s a shock to everybody because this has been a landmark. I’ve been coming here since the ‘60s,” said Ruth Taff, 71, a resident of the Pico-Robertson area.
“I come here every week. The reason originally was that I had a cousin that worked here, but then I got used to the place, I got used to the girls. I got friendly with the customers. It becomes a ritual,” she said.
Tina Jacobson, 88, a beautician, said she will miss her circle of regular customers at the beauty shop.
“My ladies, they’re very nice. They’re friends,” the Romanian immigrant said. “They take me out to lunch. They pick me up and bring me back.”
She said she plans to take it easy when the shop closes, but “maybe you find me a young boy to get married, ha-ha-ha. I have time. When I’m 102, I’ll look for a job.”
But the shop’s senior employee, barber Irving Millstone, who will be 88 on Sept. 6, already has a job lined up at a barbershop up the street.
Millstone, a native of Russia, starting working for Holt’s father 61 years ago. He took over the Eastside shop after Abe Holt moved to Fairfax 43 years ago, but rejoined him in 1955.
Like many customers and employees, Millstone remembers the family atmosphere created by the original owner and maintained by his son after Abe Holt died in 1975.
“Nobody made a rich living but everybody was happy here,” the old barber said. “I’m retiring in the year 2001. I’ll be exactly 100 years old then, if I live that long.”
Gene Holt said his father chose the name Leader because he wanted to be “the cheapest, the biggest and the best shop.”
The Father’s Dreams
Abe Holt wanted the shop to keep going after his death, and a charcoal sketch of the two men together reminds the son of the father’s dreams even today.
“I’ve had nightmares about it almost every night, about the past and being with my father,” Gene Holt said. “You don’t think you’re emotionally affected but your dreams tell you you are.”
But it was Leader’s very size that doomed its founder’s dream of a shop for the ages, Holt said.
“If I had to pay rent I would’ve been out of here years ago, which tells you there’s a higher and better use for the building,” said Holt, who has a master’s degree in finance.
Tim Corliss, a real estate broker who recently arranged the sale of two properties just south of Leader’s, agreed with Holt’s analysis.
“There’s the analogy of farmland. You can grow things on it, but as it appreciates, the farmer has to look at it and ask, ‘Am I getting a reasonable return?’ That’s what I see happening throughout the Westside.”
Estimates based on the 1980 census show that about 30% of the people who live in the two ZIP codes on either side of Fairfax Avenue are 60 years old or older.
Rents Go Up
Thirty-six percent of the households in the 90036 ZIP code, east of Fairfax, are getting by on less than $15,000 a year, and 26% of those in the 90048 area, west of Fairfax, fall below that level.
But City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky said that the neighborhood is changing because rents go up whenever apartments are vacated.
With two-bedroom apartments in the area now going for about $950, the people who are moving in will be able to pay more for goods and services, said Yaroslavsky, who grew up nearby and had his hair cut at Leader’s as a child.
“We’ll see after the census what the demographics are, but I suspect the changes in the Fairfax area will reflect a larger number of younger people coming in as senior citizens either move elsewhere or move on, because senior citizens simply can’t afford decontrolled rents,” he said.
Old-timers may long for the smell of chicken soup wafting from apartment kitchens on Friday afternoons, but “Fairfax is not a museum,” Yaroslavsky said. “It’s becoming an increasingly expensive and affluent community with each passing year.”