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Tradition meets 21st-century hip at Michigan beauty shop

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Updated: 10/17/2005 12:53 pm

By Julie Hinds
Knight Ridder Newspapers
(KRT)

There are two Hamtramcks: the place of strong ethnic traditions and the place with the hip reputation.

Imagine a nice Polish lady who's lived there for decades and a relative newcomer who's into cool clothes and cutting-edge music.

Better yet, picture Helen Wasacz and Sandra Kramer Shaw.

Helen is 83. Sandy is 35. Helen speaks fluent Polish. Sandy is trying to pick up some words from a phrase book.

Helen wears sensible shoes. Sandy prefers fishnet stockings and high-heel boots.

They're two very different women, but they share a friendship that unites the two sides of Hamtramck, Mich.

Together, they're an example of how people can connect across generations, and how cities can grow and change with pride instead of fear or resentment.

Helen spent nearly 40 years running the Edwin Beauty Salon from the front section of her Hamtramck home. It was a popular spot where women would go to talk, share a laugh or two, and have their hair done.

As Helen grew older, so did her customers. Some couldn't make it to the salon anymore because of their health. Some passed away.

"It was time to retire," she says.

Last year, a few months after Helen closed up shop, another hairstylist rented the space. Helen hoped the new person would be someone pleasant.

What she got was a new friend and new life for her neighborhood. In November, Sandy opened Barberella, a chic destination that is drawing in everyone from Birmingham soccer moms to members of Detroit's elite rock crowd.

Nobody is more pleased with the transformation than Helen, who still lives behind the salon in the roomy, two-story house that's typical of the working-class neighborhood. There also are two apartments upstairs, one of which is home to her son, Walter.

When she hears the telephone at Barberella ringing through her walls, she's happy. It's proof Sandy's business is doing well.

"The young people, they like Hamtramck, because it's convenient. And now they come to see Sandy," she says. "For my part, I'm glad she did something good for Hamtramck."

Barberella is the sort of trendy urban oasis that reminds visitors of Chicago's vibrant Wicker Park or Brooklyn's Williamsburg.

The front door is pink. A couch is purple. The curtains are a cheetah print. Blow-dryers are mounted on the walls above the crown molding. On top of everything is an intricate tin ceiling that used to be hidden underneath a drop ceiling.

On a sunny Monday afternoon, Helen and Sandy - whose other friends call her Kramer, her maiden name - take the short drive to Polonia restaurant for lunch. Over potato pancakes and Polish crepes, they tell their story.

Sandy, who grew up in Livonia, Mich., has been doing hair since she graduated high school. "I knew this is the thing I wanted to do," she says. "I get bored easily and this is always something different."

She's done work for movies, magazine layouts and videos. She went to Chicago for a while, then moved back. For six years, she's lived in Hamtramck.

Before Barberella, she was at a ritzy salon in Birmingham, Mich., a job that left her feeling "at the end of my rope." She knew she wanted a place of her own, but she was afraid of losing clients.

Then she heard from Walter Wasacz, a writer for the Hamtramck Citizen and a local DJ, that his mother had a space for rent.

Once Sandy saw it, she decided to take a chance and create her dream of "a groovy beauty clubhouse."

She recalls the first time she gingerly asked Helen if she could make some changes to the inside.

"I'm like, 'Do you think I could do some updating?' She was, like, 'Do whatever you want.' "

Sandy and her husband, Jim, spent months redoing the interior, painting the walls and restoring the tin ceiling. They took out the old furnishings and brought in new fixtures. The gleaming wood floors came courtesy of Sandy's brothers (her family started AR Kramer Flooring).

They added touches like a tall glass cabinet that formerly held ancient artifacts at the Detroit Institute of Arts and a vintage "Barbarella" poster, the Jane Fonda movie that inspired the salon's name.

The resulting atmosphere is trendy without being pretentious.

"It's not like a three-ring circus or big hotshot fancy place," says Sandy. "It's cozy, so people won't have salon phobia - you know, that feeling where you walk in the door and everyone is looking at you."

While the renovations were going on, Helen looked on admiringly.

"Her husband worked so hard on that ceiling. I watched him all summer," she says.

When Barberella debuted in the fall, there were two open houses, one for Helen to show the changes to her friends and one for Sandy's friends.

Helen went to Sandy's party, too. There, she met several young people whose parents or grandparents were from Hamtramck and who'd come back to the neighborhood.

"She was crying, she was so happy for me," says Sandy.

Adds Helen, "I felt so good, I said, 'Look at this. This is Sandy.' "

Although Sandy serves all kinds of customers, she's developed a reputation for her music clientele. Her motto is don't clip and tell, so she's reluctant to talk about them. But at lunch, Helen encourages her to reveal a few names.

"The bands, they're coming over. . . . What about the red and white band?" Helen says.

Sandy laughs. "You mean the White Stripes?" Other clients include members of the Gore Gore Girls and the Fondas.

Like most girlfriends, Helen and Sandy like to brag about each other.

"She's a tough lady, and she's young-minded," says Sandy.

"I had to be, because what else could I do?" Helen replies.

Helen was born in Hamtramck, but moved back to Poland with her family when she was very young. In 1939, she returned to Hamtramck before World War II broke out in Europe.

Years later, when she went to beauty school, she had to compete against girls who were fresh out of high school and better schooled in the kind of science that was covered. Yet she earned good grades on her exams. "I was kind of proud of myself," she recalls.

In 1963, she opened the Edwin Beauty Shop (named for its location on Edwin Street). Her husband, Walter, renovated an old combination butcher shop-grocery store to make a salon space for her. He died in 1974 after a stroke. She continued to cut and style hair there until 2001.

While Sandy compliments Helen's strength, Helen praises Sandy's way with customers.

"She's got a great personality. When I see them come in, she makes them feel so good. They relax, they're comfortable. They feel welcome."

"Treat 'em like an old relative," says Sandy.

Sandy and Helen get together often for chats. Recently, they went to a coffeehouse to see Helen's son DJ with his group, Paris '68.

"She wants to know what it was like in the '60s," says Helen. "That's when she was born."

"We talk about all sorts of stuff," says Sandy. "I'll go hang out in her living room and lay on the couch."

During the Polonia lunch, Sandy says she wants to do Helen's hair once a week "but she won't let me."

Explains Helen, "Because she doesn't want the money from me, and I want to pay for the services."

"No way!" shouts Sandy.

"See what I mean?" says Helen. "I've told her, 'When you get rich, then you can do my hair.' "

"I am rich," Sandy answers. "I'm rich with great friends." (Since that conversation, Helen has agreed to take Sandy up on her offer.)

After lunch, the pair head back to Barberella and take a moment to look at photos of Helen's salon in the old days.

The place looks totally different now. But the photographs aren't an ending. They're the first part of a story that's not over yet.

"When I retired, I felt kind of sentimental," remembers Helen. "Gee, that's a shame. It would be nice if I could rent it out to somebody."

Sandy is beaming as her pal continues.

"I wanted somebody nice and I got it," Helen says.

© 2003, Detroit Free Press.
Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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