Rub it in: Shops sell stress relief Massage: In D.C., tense bureaucrats and business people can grab a quick midday back rub.


WASHINGTON -- Near the front window of a store in the anxious heart of Washington, a woman sits on a cushioned chair, her briefcase tipped on its side and the back of her elegant purple dress unzipped to reveal a cream-colored bra.

Outside, a parade of office workers, lobbyists and lawyers on their lunch hour take a quick look and then hurry on -- too discreet, or perhaps too busy, to linger.

No, this is not a peep show for bureaucrats. It's the latest stress antidote to hit Washington: the quickie massage.

The city boasts two street-level stores offering walk-in back rubs to the overburdened masses.

No appointment necessary -- just sit on a chair and get pushed, kneaded and karate-chopped for roughly a dollar a minute, in full view of passers-by.

"It's great for people here because of the tension; otherwise they become like robots," Vika Mutter, a Russian massage therapist, said after she finished working on the woman in the purple dress at the Healthy Back Store in the downtown business district.

"If you don't do it, you're going to have a breakdown," she said as a line of patrons waited for her, relaxing in $1,400 ergonomic chairs for sale in the store's retail section.

Massage therapists are seizing on anxiety hubs such as Washington as their new territory. After all, how could a personal relaxation business go wrong in a city with so many psychologists and psychiatrists?

"Washington is just prime territory for us," said Bill Zanker, president of the Great American Back Rub, the nation's fastest-growing mini-massage chain, which plans to open two shops here by spring.

"There's so much stress in politics, and the administrations are always changing, so there's new clients all the time. It's a home run."

The "seated massages" are performed in $600 upright massage chairs, with patrons fully clothed (except for the occasional unzipping) and last from 10 to 45 minutes -- about the time it takes to grab lunch or a coffee break.

Walk-in massage shops are planned for the first time in Baltimore, Annapolis and Columbia by next year. After about a year, the two district shops are attracting regulars in a deadline-driven city where workaholics cherish the ability to hurry up and relax.

"You know how it is in this area -- you're always in a rush, you need to save time," said Juliette Gale, 33, who works for the nonprofit group Families USA. She skipped the salad bar Monday and got a 30-minute rub instead. "I feel great. I can work longer hours in front of the computer now."

The average head (policy wonks included) weighs 15 pounds and strains the back. Tension and posture problems are worsened by too many 60-hour workweeks at a desk.

So the massages have become a habit for John Estes, a 39-year-old lawyer who once or twice a week comes to the Healthy Back Store for a 20-minute rub. When he unclips his gold cuff links, slips off his suspenders and relaxes his pinstripes into a massage chair, he regains his focus.

"I've got a big day. Big week," he said. "This makes me calm down."

To attract business, the massage chairs are placed in full view of the street. They certainly halt traffic. As Estes' back was getting worked in the front window, a woman rushing by stopped and stared, shaking her head to her friend. "Girl," she said, "I need to get me one of those."

Massage therapists say their efforts are as good for mental well-being as for physical health. They quote a study by the Touch Research Institute, affiliated with the University of Miami (Florida) Medical School, which showed that workers who received a 20-minute chair massage twice a week had improved concentration and completed math problems with fewer errors in less time.

Truth be told, it can take more than a back rub to relax some Washingtonians. Sandra Whittingham, a massage therapist at BackRubs USA, tries to coax her most workaholic clients into relaxing at her shop in the middle of a federal government complex. But even as they sit still with their eyes closed, she feels them wound tighter than a coil of red tape.

"They're still ready to punch the machine," she said of some bureaucratic backs. "You lift their hand, and it just won't flop, it's that tense. I don't know. Maybe they just have a problem with touching."

And then there's that little matter of privacy.

Some clients wonder: How can I sit with my head dangling over my knees during a busy workday with a masseur slowly stimulating my back muscles -- all while my boss and co-workers may be passing by the plate-glass windows?

"I was tempted to give this to a couple of girlfriends," said Bill Pollard, 51, an analyst at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. "But other than that, I'm not too interested."

For folks seeking more private stress relief, massage therapists bring their services to companies and federal agencies (the government workers pay their own way).

Alan Alper used to rub lawyers' backs during their coffee breaks in a storage room filled with legal briefs and books. Now, he performs massages at the General Accounting Office, where twice a month he works the kinks out of the backs of the investigative arm of Congress. His 10 time slots are booked, and there's a waiting list.

"There's a lot of stress," he said. "There's a lot of business."

Pub Date: 12/12/96

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