HERE, THERE AND BACK AGAIN by Tia Swanson
A life in the business at the Garubo Salon
In mid-August a new awning went up outside the Anthony Garubo Salon in Maplewood Village. Black and understated, like its predecessor, its changes were subtle. The familiar “G” – composed of multiple thin strands of the letter that together resemble a curl, and which once had place of prominence on the door – had moved to the awning and gone through something of a makeover; the curl had taken on bangs. The full name of its founder and namesake was gone. After 47 years on Maplewood Avenue, the iconic hair salon had a single name, just Garubo, and a slightly more feminine feel, including bright pink words of welcome on the door.
The changes were made by Anthony’s daughter, Janine Garubo Austin, who has quietly taken over the day-to-day running of the salon, while her father enjoys a much-deserved semi-retirement.
It is a development Austin never dreamed of when she was corralled into working at the salon as a teenager. As she swept up hair, got coffee and folded just-washed towels, she promised herself she would get away, and do something else.
And go she did. She spent four years at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania studying philosophy and art history. She moved to New York and took a job in advertising. She got married, found an apartment in Jersey City and moved up the ladder in the corporate world, in charge of ever bigger clients in ever more far-flung places. Eventually she decided she wanted to have children.
That’s when she looked around and realized “All the moms (in advertising)...who had kids never saw their kids.” To her, it wasn’t worth “a couple of hundred thousand to never see my kids.” So, she quit her big job and eventually the big city.
And, older and wiser, she returned to Maplewood, this time both to live and to work part-time at her dad’s salon.
Anthony Garubo, who spent his early years in South Orange, cutting the hair of women who arrived for their appointments in limousines, always had his own ideas about how to run things. His salon trained its own stylists, employed a dress code – black for the cosmetologists – and offered full-time employment, with benefits and a 401K program, to its staff. “He was working for this industry to be a legitimate business,” his daughter says now. He wanted his employees to be able to show all their income so they could get loans for houses and cars and live stably.
He was also working to ensure that his business remained busy and relevant in a market that is defined by fads. For half a century he and his family have done just that, shifting gears as business has demanded; the salon has been rewarded with a loyal clientele. Garubo may be the only salon in which one-time residents returning for a visit make an appointment for a haircut while in town. What started as a single storefront has grown to two entire buildings; there is a chic, sleekly-lighted welcome station out front that employs two greeters; there are 25 chairs on the floor, several wash stations, walls devoted to hair dye and hair products, a laundry room, and a second floor with a breakroom for staff, a classroom, and a suite of offices. At times the salon also has been a spa or a nail salon, though these days it is back to its original service: cutting, coloring and styling hair.
For a long time, the part-time gig worked very well for Austin. She could help her dad in the business and watch her kids grow. It worked well for her dad, too. He was able to buy a seasonal house in Florida and slip away entirely during the colder months. He was there in March of 2020 when the pandemic hit and the full weight of the business, and all the decisions demanded by the pandemic, landed squarely on Austin.
It was she who decided to close Garubo’s doors; one of the first salons in the area to make the move, the decision earned her the gratitude of other salon owners, who quickly followed suit, and the consternation of her dad, who, in Florida, was just getting his head around masking.
But it proved to be the right move. Though it was painful to fire the company’s 35 or so employees, because of the salon’s business practices they immediately qualified for unemployment and for the extra monthly benefit offered through pandemic funding. Austin got to work applying for PPP loans, filling online orders, figuring out the differences in PPE requirements, and working out when and how the salon could reopen.
By July, Garubo’s was back up and running, but everything had changed in the interim. In a way, the pandemic served as catalyst for the handing of the business from father to daughter. Though she still consults her father on every decision, and though she says he is “very much involved and likes to be involved,” Austin is now the company’s managing partner. And her father lives in Florida six months a year.
The changes in staff and culture, meanwhile, were equally significant. Austin reckons she lost a third of her senior staff during the lockdown, a loss especially significant because those stylists also were mentors to the younger staff. Nearly all of those who returned had rethought their priorities. People wanted, and continue to want, a better work-life balance. Many no longer want to work full time; others don’t want Saturday shifts. Still others need time in their schedules to accommodate therapists or doctors. Austin coped with the changes to her staff – and the need to hire additional stylists – by collaborating with Thomas Osborn, a longtime hair stylist and educator, who now works at the salon several hours a month and teaches its entire cutting program. Garubo’s dedication to training its staff remains.
The generational shifts in style were every bit as significant and are still being navigated. “It’s been so challenging to walk a generational line,” Austin concedes, joking, “Don’t talk to me about the dress code or the music.”
While her father continues to insist on wearing black every day he is in the salon – he still periodically does the hair of favorite customers, still invigorated by the process of giving a particularly good cut – the rest of the staff generally dress more casually, and eclectically.
On the day of her interview, Austin wore a black top that would have perfectly satisfied her father. But she complemented it with a pair of skinny jeans that were ripped at the knees and skate shoes her dad probably would not have approved of.
She had her hair, graying at its front, pulled off her face but otherwise unfurled in a cut that was both effortless and completely stylish.
“I’m not a hairdresser,” Austin says with a laugh, and yet she acknowledges the business is all about style. The florist, she says, doesn’t put dead roses in his window. The salon, too, has to have a look – and that look needs to be both professional and completely modern.
So far, the salon seems to be walking that line. On a recent Wednesday, a well-dressed older woman with a classic Anna Wintour-esque bob waited patiently in one of the salon’s bamboo chairs for her stylist, who arrived in black pants and a white top to lead her back to a hair washing station. They walked down the salon’s hip white oak floors, past a younger stylist in a sleeveless top and with tattooed arms who was showing an intern with pink hair how to do a soft curl blowout. Meanwhile a 20-something with Doc Martens and a pierced nose was making an appointment for a cut.
On the other side, stylists of all ages, shapes, genders and races worked on an equally diverse clientele; the salon perfectly reflects the village and the moment in which it finds itself.
This is deliberate on Austin’s part. Though her father has worked in the village for all these years, she is the first and still the only Garubo to live here. She relishes the small things: her daughter dropping by on her way home from middle school to steal a hair clip or bum some money from her mother, grandfather or aunt (one of Janine’s younger sisters also works at the salon); and the short walk to and from the newly-named Delia Bolden School, where her son is a fourth grader.
She also loves the networking. “I live in this town and I work in this town and I’m friends with a lot of business owners, and creating a community is so important.”
Indeed, having stepped away from the corporate world for more time with her family, Austin is now inspired by the women around her who find the space and the energy to do things in addition to motherhood, including being business owners and community builders. She hopes to do her part by creating a SOMA entrepreneurs’ coalition that finds ways for small businesses to collaborate on projects and professional services in ways that benefit everyone.
The two and a half years since the pandemic began have been exhausting on so many levels. Asked if it’s all been worth it, she ponders the question for a moment, then repeats it, really seeking to answer honestly – the philosophy major coming again to the fore.
“It’s rewarding for me that I can have my parents enjoy their life together, that they’re still well, that they’re still happy...” she says slowly. “My father has put his heart and soul into his business for so long that knowing he doesn’t have to worry [means a lot].”
She talks a bit longer, the question still roiling in her mind.
I do feel that it’s upward and onward,” she says at last. [The pandemic] hasn’t brought us to our knees and I’m better on the other side for it.”
Tia Swanson would be happy spending an entire day people watching at