Brooklyn Hairdresser Goes It Alone

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By Leah Finnegan

Sheryl Oliver in her Lefferts Gardens shop. Finnegan/Brooklyn Ink
Sheryl Oliver in her Lefferts Gardens shop. Finnegan/Brooklyn Ink

Sheryl Oliver, tall and slim with short brown hair tinted red, is spry on her feet retwisting Loretta Hargrove’s dreadlocks one gray Saturday morning. Her approach is methodical: apply a mix of jojoba and Vitamin E oil to each thin coil of hair, rub, twist, comb and repeat. Her fingers move quickly, as if she were playing a harp.

Oliver, 54, is from St. Vincent. She came to Brooklyn 37 years ago. She has owned and operated Hai Stylz, her Lefferts Gardens salon, for three years.

As long as there are customers, Hai Stylz is open. Sometimes, clients keep Oliver’s light on until 1 a.m., which means she’ll get home to Flatbush at around 2, only to reopen the store at 10. She is a one-woman show, operating the shop by herself six days a week.

The block of the neighborhood Hai Stylz sits on is a rough one. Oliver’s first order of business each day is tidying up her sidewalk area, which becomes littered with trash–cigarette butts, joint wrappers, Heineken bottle tops–overnight. She calls the area a garbage can.

Oliver has nightmares about her shop being robbed. She says the African braiding salon down the street keeps its doors locked at all hours. In the morning and at night, she uses a long crowbar to lift the metal shades that guard her store when she’s not there. She fears leaving it and coming back to nothing.

Inside, the shop is open and bright. Random vases of silk flowers–orchids, lilies, zinnias–rest on the front desk, the window ledges, the cabinets at the back of the room. The perimeter of the shop is lined with chairs: four styling chairs, two hair-washing chairs, four hair-drying chairs and two patio chairs. A large poster of Marilyn Monroe looks down on the room.

The salon fell into Oliver’s hands three years ago. Her childhood friend owns the building, and when he couldn’t rent the room Hai Stylz occupies, he gave Oliver a deal. She was looking to go back to work anyway and had dreamed of owning her own shop, but never thought it possible. Her friend did everything to get the salon ready–hung the mirrors, installed the cabinets, set up the sinks. On the first day it was open, Oliver brought in a preacher to pray in the space.

Business has been slow, if steady. It has aged Oliver, even if she’s usually too busy to notice. “It’s only when I’m working really hard, and my feet hurt, and I’m too tired to get up that I realize I’m old,” she says.

Oliver grew up in Barrouallie, St. Vincent, where her mother was a seamstress, her father a barber-turned-grocer in a store that had a pump stove before it got wired for electricity. Oliver grew up working in the family business. Her main task, as delegated by her father, was to wrap sugar cane in paper to sell. She would go through several reams of paper per day. When she came to America, she enrolled in hairdressing school almost immediately. “I always wanted to do something with the arts,” she says. “But this is what I did.”

It took Oliver a more than eight years to get through beauty school. She was seized by culture shock, and took time off to learn English and better acclimate herself to Brooklyn.  She became a housewife, doing hair only sporadically.

The shop has allowed Oliver to become the doyenne of the block, although she senses that some of her neighbors don’t appreciate her role as a neighborhood watchdog. “They’re trying to impress everybody on the block not to like me,” she says. Though she often stops styling to greet passersby through the salon’s open door, she sees herself–and her shop–as an island on the street. “I am a black woman all by myself out here. And I am trying to make a living,” she says.

If anything, the inside of her store is a refuge. People hang out. On average, a client spends three hours in the salon. Oliver knows how to entertain them all. She talks to one customer about St. Vincent nightlife. She talks to another about eyelash threading. She talks to a one woman, home on break from Berklee College of Music, about Billy Joel. All the while she’s tugging, twisting, molding and sculpting hair, not skipping a beat unless to sneak off to the shop’s back room to smoke a cigarette.

Oliver does some of her most intricate work on Ayanna Brown, who lives next door to Hai Stylz. Oliver applies white relaxant paste to Brown’s scalp, readying the hair to be smoothed back for a weave. After a wash and a turn at the dryer, Oliver pulls her hair back and pins in into two tight knots. She trims a foot-long piece of artificial hair, then twists it around the knots and cuts it to fit, creating two ponytails. Then she blends the plaits of hair and sculpts them with a flat iron. The finished product is spritzed with olive oil spray.

Brown is pleased with her hair. “Remember how I came in?” she asks. “And they say there are no magicians.”

Oliver doesn’t stop to absorb the compliment. She moves on to tidying up the area, sweeping hair and folding towels, never stopping to rest. She dreams of the day when the shop runs without her, and she can sit back and watch it go.

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