by Wendy A. Horwitz
Most styling and barber shops in the city serve particular ethnic groups, but Thomasson’s Hair Salon, 7014 McCallum St. in Mt. Airy, is a gathering place for all, what Joyce Thomasson, owner and solo stylist, describes as a “reflection of Mt. Airy.” She snips a stray wisp at the nape of a toddler’s neck and listens to the earnest account of a Disney film. Later, Thomasson shapes a woman’s silvery bob as they talk quietly about money, a leaking basement. An African-American teenager banters with her while getting a “faux-hawk,” and a girl with long blond hair waits with her two moms for a trim.
Thomasson has been barbering for 37 of her 57 years. When I interviewed her 10 years ago, she said she’d used a stipend from CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, 1973) to attend barber school in Harrisburg. In the 1990s, Thomasson taught at Tri-City Barber School in Philadelphia where students and teachers were mostly African-American men. Proving herself was a challenge.
“But I was always a rebel,” she explains, “Dropped out of college, got married young, didn’t do things the way my mother thought I should.” Laughing, she breaks into a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” “Seriously, at my 55th birthday, I realized I had done things on my own terms and succeeded.” She stood up to her family, bought a house in Mt. Airy, put her son, Casey, 28, through college and built a regular, diverse clientele of 350.
That number has been steady despite the economic downturn. “Those who couldn’t afford high salon prices elsewhere came to me since I’m priced in the middle,” she says. This gain compensated for customers who left for less expensive barbers. The demographic mix remains, though her reputation among older clients has grown; Thomasson once worked as a hairdresser in a nursing home and still does institutional and home visits.
During the 10 years in her own shop, Thomasson has maintained the cozy atmosphere, despite some changes. The over-stuffed couch and hand-painted furniture are still there; so are the children’s books and bright murals of ”cosmic clouds and hair” by Phyllis Hochberg. A jar of whole-grain pretzels now sits by the glass of chocolates. Her beloved dog, Roshi, no longer sprawls in “his” chair, lackadaisically accepting affection. (He died in 2011.) Thomasson has added bamboo flooring and new barber chairs.
“I’ve changed, too,” she says. “I listen more carefully, I’m not on automatic as much.” She attributes her fuller attention to maturity, having a grown child and caring for her aging mother. Every six weeks for a half-hour, she sees most hairstyling clients. “It is an honor to hear people’s stories (while she is working on their hair). Kids say things they don’t want their parents to know. I meet new babies; people tell me about their new lovers, their divorces. I’ve become a confidante.” Loss, too, is part of the job: “Four or five deaths a year; the elders are going.” She smiles gently. ” We’re all heading that direction, aren’t we?”
Thomasson feels more exhausted at the end of the day but balances that with walks in the woods to reflect. “But the talk is satisfying, and I get as much back. Anyway,” she laughs, “I don’t need a therapist; I have 350 therapists!” She compares clients’ lives to “the neighborhood growing up,” e.g., the expansion of Weavers Way, Goat Hollow Restaurant’s reemergence and the blossoming community garden at Ellet and McCallum Streets.
Thomasson is rooted in Mt. Airy and loves that people always greet her, but she adds, “I can’t really hide; I’m never anonymous.” With a client as business partner, she recently purchased a farmhouse and grange hall on one-and-a-half acres outside Ithaca, NY. “Maybe it wasn’t the ‘right’ time,” Thomasson says, “but the opportunity was there.” For her, Ithaca is “Mt. Airy in the mountains,” with its similar atmosphere and “creature comforts.” When she retires, she’ll move to the farm, write and turn the grange into a dance hall. “I’d open it to the community,” she says. “Ballroom, rock, you name it. Dance, play! That’s the plan.”
She’ll also travel, having already visited China, Japan and France. The next journey she wants to do her way: “I could do a TV spot on a travel show, visiting barbershops around the world. It could be a window onto the culture, the demographics, the people.” She also imagines a National Geographic-style book.
If the community feeling in her shop are any indication, we’ll be watching Joyce Thomasson schmoozing with barbers from Beijing to Barcelona. They’ll be lucky to have her to talk to.
For more information, call 215-848-9088.