by Steve Ahern
If her mother Merl would have allowed it, Stephanie Hall’s bedroom growing up might have held every stray animal in her neighborhood. As it was, Hall, the 32-year-old owner of Uptown Dog Pet Salon, 7151 Germantown Ave., had at least two cages in her room at all times, holding hamsters or guinea pigs from the Petco where she worked washing dogs as a teenager.
At that time, Merl, who now owns a miniature poodle named Bingo, who now roams the interior of her home, practiced the mostly followed credo of her native Jamaica that animals belong outside. In one of their visits back to the rural areas of Jamaica, Merl recalled the time her then-12-year-old daughter befriended a rooster she named Big Joe, who was later served for supper. “She wouldn’t eat it,” Merl recalled.
“I kept calling and calling, but Big Joe didn’t show,” said Hall, who grew up in Trenton, NJ, but now lives in Mt. Airy, when reminded of the story. It did nothing to dislodge her connection to animals. Over the years, Hall’s powerful longing for a cat and dog she could not have as a child drove her to the shelters where she cared for the cats and walked the dogs, and found employment at pet shops from the time she was old enough to work. And, over those years, it rubbed off on her mother.
“She taught me to love animals,” Merl says. “Bingo is the apple of my eye.”
Hall’s devotion to animals and her work as a professional groomer through much of her 20s led to the opening in December, 2011, of Uptown Dog Pet Salon, named for Hall’s connection to New York City, where some of Hall’s relatives live and where she attended the New York School of Dog Grooming in 2000 when she was 19 years old. Light gushes in through the shop’s large bay window amid the late morning bustle of Germantown Avenue, through which dog lovers young and old can peer in on a preening in progress or at freshly groomed dogs peering back in the hopes that their owners have arrived to collect them.
Finnegan (Hall guessed he was a terrier mix) arrived at the shop 1.5 hours ago and is now nearly done, his adorability worthy of a postcard. He wears a bandana around his neck and a few shags of hair on his head, left on at the request of the owner. Midway through Finnegan’s cut, a customer came in to make an appointment for her placid yet sizable Collie/Retriever mix, and shortly after she left, a Maltese/Shih Tzu mix named Chief trotted in with a layers-thick coat of matted hair for his summer cut (or perhaps his first cut ever).
“My family thinks he’s fat,” the owner said. “It’s all fur.”
That owner’s boyfriend had washed Chief’s matted coat, making the knots and coils tighter, Hall explained. After a protracted bout of clamorous barking, grounds for a Tylenol commercial or a parody of one, Hall put the finishing touches on Finnegan, who scampered out to the front of the shop. Hall lifted Chief to the grooming table, where a laborious shearing ensued. “I need to find an opening,” Hall said, clutching the coils and searching for a starting point. “He’ll feel so much better once it’s off.”
Chief sought to thwart the process with crafty shifting and defensive licks, but Hall remained immersed in her task of shaving Chief to the skin that the air hadn’t touched, by Hall’s estimation, “in months.” Hall used a spray to cool the blade grown hot from use, as Chief’s coat of matted fur rolled off of him like layers of cotton insulation. Hall was concerned about the possibility of skin irritation, which she later treated during Chief’s oatmeal bath. After the shearing, it was clear that Chief was all fur and weighed no more than 15 pounds. “Some dogs don’t like being groomed,” Hall said, “but they feel so good when it’s over with.”
During an interval away from full-time dog grooming, when Hall was studying psychology at Temple University, she took a part-time job as a residential counselor in Philadelphia. Here, she was confronted with clients who had serious mental health challenges: clients who would gash themselves with razors just to feel something or because a voice only they could hear told them to.
But after four years, these particularly needy clients, who would wander around to her office for some last-minute counseling that often spilled past Hall’s departure time, and the emergency phone calls she would receive after she left, at times well into the night from despairing clients, left her altogether drained. And it was when she was still at this job that she decided after much trepidation and mulling, to open her dog salon in the midst of the recession. “I just felt it was the right time in my life to open up my salon,” Hall said. “I said to my mom, ‘What if they (customers) don’t come?’ She said, ‘Just cut well, and they will come.’”
So far, Hall has received many word-of mouth referrals as well as unanimous rave reviews on Yelp.com. Tracy Kraemer, Hall’s mentor for several years and owner of Head to Tails Grooming and Doggie Day Care in Cranbury, NJ, was delighted to hear that Hall had opened her own grooming salon and relieved it was separated from her own by the Delaware River and 56 miles. She recalled Hall’s remarkable temperament for grooming and ability to calm even the most implacable of pets. “She has a lot of patience to work with dogs,” Kraemer said. “If you’re not patient with them, they can become neurotic.”
Kraemer, 51, has been grooming for 33 years, and observed through those years how the dog grooming and boarding profession burgeoned into a $4.1 billion industry, according to the American Pet Products Association. She noted the physical toll grooming takes on the body, particularly on the wrists. Kraemer has had two carpel tunnel operations and finds massage therapy helpful in loosening the stiffness and pain that builds up in the neck, lower back and feet from so much standing. She must remind herself to sit down periodically when grooming.
Hall charges anywhere from $50 to $100 for most cuts, depending on the size and needs of the dog. Stylized cuts of standard poodles for example can run upwards of $150. Other services provided include teeth brushing, nail and face trimming, facials and ear care among others. “Some customers are surprised at how long the process takes,” Hall said. “The drying takes almost an hour, and a cut can take from 45 minutes to an hour… “I have pet parents from all walks of life: artists, teachers, writers, musicians and college professors. As for the dogs, I have dogs that love everything and wag their tail for the whole grooming process, and then there are some that you have to give a little extra encouragement or go a little slower when working on a certain area. I don’t mind either way.”
For more information, call 215-247-2569 or visit www.uptowndogpetsalon.com