After a particularly taxing day at work, Vancouverite Darcy Wintonyk settled into an oversized antique couch at Bangtown Saloon, a Gastown hair studio, awaiting her highlights appointment. It was her first time at the salon—the fifth one she’d tried out in as many years—and she wasn’t sure what to expect. “They offered me a choice between Baileys and coffee or Pabst Blue Ribbon,” says Wintonyk, 32. She opted for the beer, which came in a tall glass. “I thought, ‘This is heaven,’ ” she recalls.
Bangtown isn’t the only hair salon to step things up in the hospitality department. A growing number in cities like Vancouver and Toronto boast drink menus, baked goods, even in-house baristas. Some are offering yoga classes, and throwing dance parties where their clients can mingle. At Bangtown, “you feel like you’re sitting in your uncle’s basement, chilling,” says manager Erynn Lavallee. “You can’t tell who is a customer, or a friend or an employee.” Bangtown fancies itself an alternative to more pretentious salons. Owner Denny Bateham came up with the idea after years of tagging along on his girlfriend’s hair appointments, wishing someone would serve him a beer. In addition to brews and Baileys, there are Caesars or sparkling wine on hand in the summer. Men who opt for a traditional “hot shave,” (a straight razor shave) with the in-house barber are treated to a shot of whisky. It’s not so much about “getting hammered”, says Lavallee, as it is about creating a warm atmosphere.
That’s a sentiment echoed by Ivan Gibski, who six years ago launched Flaunt Boutique in Toronto’s east end. The 3,000-sq.-ft. space looks more like a gallery/lounge than a salon. Clients are offered a glass of house red or white, and free to check out the local art displayed on the walls. They can “slow down, get a haircut and hang out,” says Gibski. Gibski’s business doesn’t have a liquor licence, although there are now a few licensed salons in Ontario that do; at Flaunt, as in Bangtown, the booze is complimentary, served as a treat.
The ultra-chic, “stuffy” vibe prevalent in many salons is not everyone’s thing, says Chanel Croker of Toronto’s Day and Night salon. When Croker, a 30-year-old with bleached-blond hair and a pixie cut, opened Day and Night in the city’s Dundas West neighbourhood, she envisioned a hub for young, fashion-forward people like her. The clean, modular space operates as a fully functioning hair salon but also sells coffee-table art books and magazines; depending on the night, it might even be transformed into a nightclub or gallery.
During Nuit Blanche, Toronto’s all-night art exhibit, the salon organized a 12-hour lineup of live music showcasing local record label Rare Beef. More than 200 people showed up. In the summer, it teamed up with photographer Mark Hesselink to display a collection on Toronto’s skate punk scene.
Vancouver’s Markus J. Hair and Wellbeing similarly reflects its community, though, being located in the city’s beachside Kitsilano neighbourhood, it’s more hippie than hipster. Its health-obsessed owner, Mona Leung, pampers her “guests” with bubble tea and granola bars while portable DVD players play anything from Sex and the City to new movies. She also hosts raw food workshops and hatha yoga classes.
Laura Linnan, a professor at University of North Carolina’s school of public health, says beauty parlours are actually the perfect environment to raise health awareness. She’s studied society’s relationship with salons for the past 14 years, and has partnered with the American Cancer Society and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to execute public health campaigns in many of them. “You can go into any community—rural, urban, suburban, large or small, in the U.S. and Canada and there are only a couple of things you’ll find: a post office and a place to get your hair cut,” she says. “They end up becoming a place where people come together.”
Wintonyk, for her part, says Bangtown may be the cure for her commitment-phobia. Between the booze and treats, it’s no longer the first stop on a big night out, but a destination in its own right.