75 years of ‘wash and set’ for salon regulars

(Gazette Photo by Rebeca Oliveira) “Miss” Laura Dembski curls Peggy Mullins’s hair, as she has done every Saturday since she bought the South Street salon in 1998.

Every Saturday morning, Laura Dembski and her employees know to have Miss Laura’s at Cla-Mar Beauty Culture open and ready by 8:30. The regulars start showing up about then.

Anne Puleo, 81, is the first. She gets her hair washed and set and is usually on her way out the door by 9:30, just like she has done for the last 60 years. This past Saturday, she stayed a little later to talk to the Gazette, which visited Miss Laura’s.

Puleo has been coming to the hair salon at 46 South St. almost since it opened in the mid-1930s. Granted, during the first decade or so of patronizing the salon, it was Puleo’s mother who was the one getting her hair done.

The pay-what-you-can coffee and pastries provided by the customers are gone. The bathroom is now upstairs. The stylists are tattooed and there are bizarre objects like phrenology head models all over the shop.

The service, however, remains good: “I would recommend this place to anybody. They’re very good at it, both young and old,” Puleo said.

When the last owner, Kathleen Byrda, was selling the salon in 1998, Puleo and the other regulars were part of the negotiation, Dembski said. Byrda told Dembski that she’d only sell if Dembski promised to keep the regular appointments.

And so she has.

Peggy Mullins is next. Her daughter brings her every Saturday as Mullins’s health isn’t what it used to be.

When asked about how long she’s been coming to Miss Laura’s, she replies with, “Forever. A long time.”

She gets her hair washed and set. Dembski loads her fluffy white curls with hairspray and sends her on her way.

Mary Walsh, who is in her 70s, started coming to the salon in the 50s. She had her hair done here for her own wedding, her children’s weddings and her grandchildren’s weddings.

“I come here because it’s convenient. I live just down the street,” she told the Gazette. She moved into Rosemary Street after marrying her husband, Ted, at Thomas Aquinas Church in 1955. “I enjoy coming in here every Saturday…I look forward to it.”

The décor has changed, Puleo and Walsh said. Back in the ’60s, the floor was linoleum. The stylists’ stations had individual mirrors instead of the large 15-foot-wide one now present. And there was a whole side of the shop that was lined with hair dryers.

“It was like a factory,” Puleo said. “It was what you did in those days.”

Two of those dryers remain. They’re still in use, though not used as often as they used to be.

The original owners, Clara Della Femina and Margaret Griffin, opened the salon in 1936, Dembski said, though she’s not completely sure of the year.

Della Femina’s father was a barber who had a shop at 34 South St., Dembski said. After Della Femina finished beauty school, her father set her up with her own shop.

Sometime in the mid-’60s, Mary Ellen Shippey and Kathleen Byrda bought the salon. The regulars still came for their standing appointments.

“I have wonderful, wonderful memories of that place,” Byrda told the Gazette from her home in Florida. “It was the people. It was family! Once they came, they stayed. You made your customers last…Everybody cared about everybody.

“It got to the point where they felt they had the right to say anything to you. Things like, ‘Those pants look terrible on you,’” she continued.

That honesty has not gone away: On the Saturday the Gazette visited, Puleo told Dembski that she did not care for the art, which featured creepy dolls in various stages of undress, currently on display in the shop’s window.

Before selling to Dembski, Byrda thought she’d have to close the salon. She’d had no luck with buyers, so she threw a closing party for her regulars. She still has all the cards and letters they gave her that day, she said.

Then, Dembski walked in one day during lunch. She bought the salon by the end of the week. The regulars kept their appointments.

When asked why she’s still going to the same place that styled her hair for her prom, Puleo stated, with a disbelieving look, “It’s where I do my hair! I have very difficult hair.”


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