Styling hair for a lifetime

THE BALTIMORE SUN

From the saucy bobs sported by flappers in the 1920s to the purple and blue frenzied dos favored by rock bands today, the Baltimore beauty shop named after its founder, Carl Griesser, has stayed on top of coifs and colors since 1924.

Along the way, the salon has attracted a loyal following among long-time Baltimore families, some of which have patronized Carl's for multiple generations.

When she first came to Baltimore in 1957, "Everyone directed me to Carl's," says Sheila Pakula, who remains a faithful customer. At one time, her mother and three daughters were also among the shop's clientele.

This Thursday, Carl's Intercoiffure celebrates its 80th anniversary with hors d'oeuvres, fruit, sweets and champagne at its shop in the Village of Cross Keys. Clients are invited to stop by and celebrate eight decades of dependable service and, no doubt, some good hair salon gossip.

Such gravitas is usually reserved for a venerable grocery store or law firm. It is rare that a beauty salon acquires similar institutional weight. But clients such as Glen Arm resident Ethel Braun, who first patronized Carl's in 1938, plan to attend the anniversary fete because, she says, "It's only proper that I should."

For Braun, who works in her family real estate business, a trustworthy stylist is an important asset throughout a busy life. "Mr. Carl" was a master at tinting, Braun says. "He was wonderful at that."

When Mr. Carl retired, Howard Fong and Willmar Sick "carried out the Carl's tradition," she says. "Their shop has always been a beautiful shop and very distinguished," says Braun, who has her hair done every two to three weeks.

'In the forefront'

Taking an innovative approach to hair care, Griesser mixed his own permanent wave solutions and shampoo formulas. He "was really in the forefront," says one-time protege Fong. Since their arrival in the 1950s, Fong and chemist Sick have defied the salon world's reputation for having an itinerant work force. The two men bought the shop from Griesser in 1959 and now co-own it with bookkeeper Cathy Baggett and stylist Mercedes Reiriz-Stankis, who have both worked for Carl's for decades.

Fong, 75, started work at Carl's in 1954, after the shop had relocated from Read Street to an elegant North Charles Street address where hairdressers in tuxedos tended customers in roomy private booths. Griesser's wife, known as "Mrs. Carl," sold cosmetics and other vanity items in the shop. "During Preakness, we had the best windows," Fong says of their seasonal storefront displays featuring fashionably coiffed mannequins.

Trained in Paris, Austria, Italy and other European countries, "Mr. Howard," an Arkansas native, was a competitive stylist, who earned honors in matches such as the "Golden Curls Contest" at the Belvedere Hotel. "We'd do silly hairdos, like this," he says, pointing to a vintage photo featuring a young woman with a blond bouffant that he had graced with a twiggy bouquet of flowers. "I won third place that year."

Fong, who lives in Towson, can't imagine retiring to play bridge or golf. He still takes pride in a well-executed haircut. "I can make people happy and make myself happy by creating something."

Sick, 76, wears an apron and his hands are stained by the chemicals he works with to formulate dyes, tints and highlights. "Repair jobs" are his favorite task. "I like those the best," he says. And he's seen it all. "Every [example] has been here: too black, too over-streaked, too green." Knowing how to tackle challenges takes forethought, says Sick who came to Carl's in 1958. "Like any artist, whatever you do, think it through first."

Hair's more natural

Carl's moved to Cross Keys when the North Baltimore shopping area opened in 1965. For two years, the shop operated at both locations. In 1967, though, Fong and Sick sold the Charles Street salon. The "racial riots and exodus" from Baltimore were determining factors, as was the fact that clients often made appointments at both salons and would cancel one at the last minute, Fong says.

Along the way, hairstyles have cycled through more than once, and certain taboos, such as revealing your true hair color, have largely evaporated. Now, as well, clients "come in with their own ideas," Reiriz-Stankis says. "Even young guys know exactly what they want."

Over the years, hair styling has become more natural, Reiriz-Stankis says. "When I was coming up, everything was teasing and setting," she says. "There's more freedom; [hair] is not as conservative or stuffy."

But with freedom comes a price. "Looking put together, but in a more relaxed way, is harder to do. Looking perfect is easier. Looking natural is more difficult," Reiriz-Stankis says.

In 1993, Carl's relocated upstairs at Cross Keys and expanded into a full service salon that offers "hydro-active mineral salt body scrubs" as well as tints, perms, cuts and shampoos.

Soon the salon -- one of only two original Cross Keys occupants, (the other is The Store Ltd.) -- will have competition. The Red Door spa is moving into the space left vacant by Bibelot.

Carl's customers are affronted, Hong and his partners say. But the four say they aren't intimidated by their new neighbor. "We were more nervous about the Red Door before than we are now," Baggett says. Carl's has weathered past transitions, she says. "When an employee leaves, they take a part of the business with [them] and you regroup."

Parking cars for clients, entertaining children while their moms are coiffed, administering first haircuts with few tears, keeping a couple of dryers for those few customers who still have their hair set with rollers: All generate good will -- and protection against competition.

Clients and staff have become attached over the years as well. "We really think of Mr. Howard as family," Pakula says. When her daughter visits Baltimore, she often stops by Carl's to say hello to the staff and show off her three children, Pakula says.

"It was the nicest shop in town and always was and it was a nice experience to go get your hair done and your nails done," Pakula says. "But it still is. A few of us have been there forever."

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