Salon owner Helen Gourley plunged into the nail-care industry with the nerve and verve of a channel swimmer determined to reach the distant shore. It looked a long way; it was; and Helen has come a long way; 30 years in the business. Now she stands on the high ground and looks back with a sense of triumph over troubles.
Helen has lots of memories. She has seen the industry advance from infancy to young adulthood. Many of her memories are contained in a large leather-bound photo album which she used as an aid in telling her story. Helen brushed the album with her palm in a gesture of affection, then opened it slowly and began to tell a captive story.
As she talks, Helen's large, blue eyes sparkle. Her delicate, oval face boasts a peaches and cream complexion framed with soft-honey-blonde curls. Initial observation reveals a demure woman of small frame and soft-spoken voice. A second impression, however, discloses a competent, competitive, assertive — sometimes aggressive — business woman. The contrast is startling. "Regal" describes the blend.
It all started for Helen in 1954. Restless and dissatisfied with life in Great Falls, Montana, Helen packed up her two small children and left her home town. This small town girl had a big dream, one that would motivate her for years to come: to become a professional manicurist and to own her own salon.
Helen headed for San Francisco where, conveniently, the Marinello Beauty College (now the Marin Beauty College) had just opened its doors. Helen was on their doorstep.
A course in cosmetology cost $85 at that time. Sounds like a bargain today but in 1955 it was a healthy sum of cash, especially if you didn't have the $85. Being assertive, Helen managed a special fee.
"Because I was the first student to enroll, they offered me a special enrollment: instead of paying $85, I got in for half price, $42.50." With the "dauntless spirit of resolution," she worked her way through the course.
In 1956, Helen received her license, then got a job as a manicurist in a six-chair barbershop in San Francisco where she was paid $40 a week, plus tips. (Today a professional nail technician can earn upward to $800 a week, and a course in cosmetology could cost $1200.) Helen has seen these monetary changes along with developments in products, techniques and industry growth. "There's just no comparison. I knew it would be big, but I didn't know how big."
Helen had more than one motive for working in the barbershop. "I hoped i might meet a rich man, fall in love and get married." It was not to be Helen's fate. She fell in love all right — but with the nail industry.
This love pushed Helen to take the next step. "I soon left the barbershop. I was getting tired of working on men ... all that filing . . . and I wanted to work on women." Even in the same breath, she mentions working on such well-known men as Ralph Bellamy and Robert Cummings.
It was time for Helen to move up. From the barbershop, Helen advanced into a position with the Palace Hotel, and later moved to the Dock Beauty Salon in Tiburon, where she stayed for five years.
Then came a period of searching. Helen worked in a number of salons in San Francisco and even tried her wings operating her own salon — Helen's Hand Boutique. Things were never quite the way she wanted them though; and soon, she moved back to Marin County, not defeated but with new hope for realizing her dream.
The advent of sculptured nails marked a new beginning for Helen's career. In 1976, Helen created her own custom nail salon, called The Nail Clinic, where she has been reaping the rewards of success for almost 10 years.
The Nail Clinic was the first of its kind in Marin. Helen's personal style and her technique caught on rapidly. Her keen sense of market needs brought her back to Marin knowing women would clamor for her service. "When I came back to Marin, I was wearing sculptured nails. No one knew what they were ...this was something new, something different. It wasn't long before the word got around that I could do false fingernails' and I had a steady stream of customers. Even my old clients from San Francisco and Tiburon came to The Nail Clinic."
Helen's photo album displays pictures of clients she has had over the years. Amazingly, some are still her steady customers. The ability to establish a clientele for this length of time is a tribute to Helen's personal style.
This long-term success was created through discipline, through an enlightened self-interest and through her ability to share what she has learned.
Helen says, "If something new comes out in relation to nails, you can bet I'll be the first to know about it and I'll gladly pass it on."
Helen has taken this approach with training her two assistants, Kris McLaughlin and Marjorie Bower. Training in advanced technique is not the only instruction offered to Kris and Marjorie. Through years of experience, Helen has learned how muddled the client/technician relationship can get without training in the area.
"Don't confuse your clients' impression of your work with their impression of you. They may not match. My clients don't have to like me, humor me, or praise me; they just have to like my work," says Helen.
Helen has reached a level of professional maturity her employees and clients appreciate. Both Kris and Marjorie offered insights into how Helen's professional manner has affected their own professional style and reasons for working at The Nail Clinic.
"Helen believes in quality control," says Kris. "This means Helen checks every fingernail that goes out of this shop. She's a perfectionist. She checks every step from start to finish."
Helen retorts, "You have to be a perfectionist in this business; if you are not, you'd better be doing something else."
Kris was a bookkeeper before she got into the nail business. "Books don't talk back," she says. For some people that might be a blessing, but Kris is "definitely a people person."
Kris went to work at The Nail Clinic to learn advanced technique from Helen. "It hasn't been easy. The first week I went home crying every night. Finally, I got it. Helen isn't real generous with praise, but when she does praise you, you know you've done a good job."
Kris has learned a great deal under Helen's tutelage, has adjusted to the demands of the industry and now enjoys a greater sense of self-esteem. "I have more self-respect as a nail technician. It comes from the instant gratification that goes with doing nails."
Marjorie was a hotel manager before becoming a technician. She told about the frustration she felt on a traditional job: ". . . not being able to complete a daily task ... there are phone calls you didn't get returned . . . paper work left undone. That's not the case with nails."
Working at The Nail Clinic means for Marjorie having greater control over her life. "Here at the clinic, if I feel a little burned out, I can adjust my hours. Come in late, leave early, or just take a day off if I wish. I like that kind of control. And," she adds, "here you don't have to see clients you don't want to work on."
The policy at The Nail Clinic is to match up the right customer with the right technician. "I don't like all that jealousy, backbiting that goes on in some shops," says Helen. "It spoils the atmosphere."
Just how does this system work?
"Simple, I explain to my customers that they will have to see either Kris or Marjorie, that I've trained them and they will like them fine once they get used to them. And, of course, they do."
It's apparent that Helen has a lot of trust in Kris and Marjorie, and she can relax knowing her customers are well cared for. She then has time to focus on other areas of her life and her career.
Although the cover of the photo album is closed for now, the story is not finished. And it won't be — as long as Helen Gourley is the owner and operator of The Nail Clinic.