Sitting on the front porch of Nail Expressions Salon are (left to right) BJ Layne, Sandi Bishop, owner Rhonda Coe-Kleifgen, and Nicki Limeris.

Sitting on the front porch of Nail Expressions Salon are (left to right) BJ Layne, Sandi Bishop, owner Rhonda Coe-Kleifgen, and Nicki Limeris. 

As dearly as dialects and landscapes fluctuate throughout the United States, so do its salons. Salons of New England delineate the refinement of the nation’s Anglo heritage, while salons in New York mirror the verve of a city in motion. Salons of the Midwest reflect the values of America’s heartland, and California salons encompass an eclectic mixture of everything from newfangled to sublime. Salons of the South embrace a singular quality that stands alone, a certain charm exclusive to the latitude in which they exist. In a land with a long memory of cavaliers, cotton fields, drawing rooms, and genteel ladies, salons of the South reflect a tradition of courtesy, dignity, and social consciousness.

Steel Magnolia

Step back in time at Hair Spa in southwest Houston, where stained glass lamps, vintage barber chairs, antique vanities, and Queen Anne chairs lend an air of Old South charm. Waiting clients sip flavored teas and gourmet coffee out of antique cups and saucers while eyeing the memorabilia that lines the walls and shelves.

But making her salon a monument to the Old South is not all that Cathy Neben has done since she opened Hair Spa three years ago.

“My husband is a doctor and my background is in the sciences. We are both serious about improving health and education in our community,” Neben says with conviction and a slight Southern accent.

Challenged herself with severe epilepsy, Neben spends a lot of her time raising money for medical research. Her other philanthropic efforts are spent improving the lives of low-income school children. She estimates that 70% of the people in her area live below the poverty level.

“Most of the kids in school here can’t afford to buy their lunches, so they are on a free lunch program. Years ago, the schools cut out field trips because most of the kids’ families couldn’t afford to participate.” Last year, the Nebens spearheaded dozens of projects in the community, but the one Cathy is the most proud of is her and her husband’s donation to sponsor field trips again in the local grade school.

Neben, who graduated from Houston Baptist University, is still heavily involved with her college sorority, Psi Mu. Coincidentally, Psi Mu is also the sorority house of the real Shelby Eatenton character who suffered from diabetes m the film, “Steel Magnolias.” As Psi Mu’s chapter advisor, Neben has recruited sorority members to put on holiday parties for underprivileged children. Currently, they are working to provide computer equipment to the chil­dren through the university.

She got her salon employees involved last year, as well. Together with Hair Spa’s salon director and award-winning nail artist Marti Preuss, they sponsored a “Day of Nails” to raise money for Children’s Miracle Network, an organization that provides better health care for children.

“The salon is another great way to serve people,” says Neben. “It is a surefire way to make someone with low sett- confidence feel better about themselves. That’s why I got into the beauty business — to watch the transformation.”

With the Defiance of Scarlett….

The word “southern” brings to mind sweet and minty iced tea, a lingering drawl, and hospitality. And while Nail Expressions in Winston Salem, N. C., doesn’t serve iced tea and has one nail technician from Minnesota and another from California, the atmosphere is, well, Southern.

Nail Expressions Salon in Winston-Salem, NC, was originally built in the early 1900s as a mill house for Hanes Knitwear employees.

Nail Expressions Salon in Winston-Salem, NC, was originally built in the early 1900s as a mill house for Hanes Knitwear employees. 

“This is a place where our clients say they feel like they’re visiting friends. Everything we do here is from the heart,” says owner and nail technician Rhonda Coe-Kleifgen in a distinct drawl.

Today, Coe-Kleifgen operates her salon in a house smack dab in the middle of “Hanes Town,” a pretty, peaceful section of the city where Hanes Knitwear Corp. began building mill houses for its employees back in 1916.

Eight years ago, single parent Coe- Kleifgen got her nail technician license and opened a small, one-room salon in the; only place she could afford, a local office building. But in such close quarters, it didn’t take long before neighboring tenants began to complain about the odor.

“The building owner was a wonderful old southern gentleman who felt so sorry for me that he gave me three months’ free rent so that I could save enough money to move to another location,” remembers Coe-Kleifgen. “I don’t know if I could have survived in this business without his help.”

Although she still couldn’t afford to move to a big storefront, she knew enough now to find a space with proper ventilation. Finally, she found a place that she could afford, and, before signing the lease, reviewed it in detail. Fourteen months later, after recarpeting and remodeling, she was notified by city officials that the center was not zoned for commercial use as indicated in the lease. She had 30 days to vacate.

“That’s when I thought, ‘I love this business, but I’ll be darned if I’m going to rent again.’ Then, my daddy found this house, and my grandparents gave me the money for a down payment,” she said.

For the next 30 days, she did nails during the day and remodeled at night. Every evening, her family, friends, nail technicians, and their husbands came to help.

“Some nights my child slept in the car while I watched her and redecorated,” admits Coe-Kleifgen. “It was a hard time, but the end results were worth it.”

Today, her neighbors are descendants of the original owners of the old mill houses: Rev. Snow calls everyone “Sister,” and Miss Ruby offers her garden vegetables to all who pass.

“At Christmas time,” says Coe- Kleifgen, “we fix baskets for all these old Southern folks. After all, they’re just like part of the family.”

A Race With Nature

As client Bridget Blackwell soaks her feet in a whirlpool spa and enjoys the sights and sounds of nature all around her, if s sometimes hard for her to believe that she sits only 100 yards from Darlington International Dragway.

“The race track has become a Southern tradition,” says Sherry Menasco owner of The Nail Parlor in Darlington, S.C. And indeed it is. The Darlington track was built in 1951 and soon became known internationally as the home of NASCAR racing.

Before each big race, Menasco primps and polishes the wives of the owners and local celebrities.

“I have done the nails of Miss Southern 500 Raceway and Miss South Carolina. I always make these ladies gift baskets as an expression of community pride,” she says.

After working at a nail salon in town for three years, Menasco decided she wanted to be closer to home and her son. She hired a contractor and turned her husband’s old workshop into a first-class salon with a nod to the Old South.

Clients enjoy looking through a large bay window onto the backyard where a garden of magnolias surrounds a two-tiered lily pond and, waterfall. The fish pond attracts furry and not-so-furry friends from the dense woods nearby, including noisy bullfrogs and a turtle who regularly sunbathes on a large rock just outside the window. “Those critters can be so loud that sometimes my new clients think I’m playing a nature tape for them,” Menasco laughs.

But the nature scenes and the proximity to the race track are not the only reasons Menasco has been successful; it’s the little extras she provides that keep clients coming back. Every day she picks fresh magnolias, roses, and yellow jasmine to bring to the salon. And when she bakes something for her family, she always makes a little extra for her clients.

South of the Manatee River

When nail technician Connie Boyett has a break between clients, she often sits outside on the veranda in one of her rocking chairs. “This gives me a chance to unwind and visit with my neighbours and passers-by,” says Boyett, owner of The Nail Emporium in Bradenton, Fla.

Inside, die three-year-old nails-only salon is decorated with antiques, flowering plants, floral wainscoting, and Southern-style white wicker furniture. Boyett describes her decor as a mixture between Southern and Victorian styles.

“It’s been pretty smooth sailing for me since I opened here,” she says, adding, “I employ five of the best nail technicians in town, including my sister, Tish, and I trust them all implicitly.”

Last year, two of Boyett’s busiest technicians decided to open their own salon — directly across the street. Boyett told herself that the Lord doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle, so instead of waging war against the women, she welcomed the competition and wished them both luck The result was that the two salons work together amicably, and even refer clients to each other.

“It’s just like having a sister salon instead of a competitor. We have one client who comes here for a manicure, then walks across the street for a pedicure. The clients didn’t side with anyone because we’re all friends down here, even the folks who come from up North to visit every winter,” says Boyett, whose husband Eddie thinks that everyone north of the Manatee River is a Yankee.

The New South

When asked whether she would describe herself as a “Steel Magnolia,” Victoria Lyons bursts into laughter. Because while this 30-year-old salon owner, was born and raised in Durham, N.C., describing her as a typical Southerner is no more accurate than describing her native city as a typical Southern town.

Victoria Lyons is a credit to the nail industry everywhere, with her many awards and advanced education certificates. But all the benefits of her expertise go to her grateful clients in Durham, NC, mostly well paid professionals from nearby Research Triangle Park.

Victoria Lyons is a credit to the nail industry everywhere, with her many awards and advanced education certificates. But all the benefits of her expertise go to her grateful clients in Durham, NC, mostly well paid professionals from nearby Research Triangle Park. 

Once the tobacco capital of the United States, Durham is now better known for its high-tech hub, Research Triangle Park, and its residents are more accurately described as urban professionals than genteel Southerners.

Welcome to the New South, Lyons says, which she and her salon, Victoria’s Nails and Tanning, exemplify. “The New South is professional, multi-racial and culturally diverse,” she explains. “The New South bears no resemblance to ‘Gone With the Wind.’ It’s still beautiful, and you don’t have to drive far before you see nothing but trees, but the city is part of a major metropolitan area; it’s very industrial and fast-paced.”

While some may wax nostalgic for the slower pace and, some say, warmer people, Lyons embraces the changes in attitudes and opportunities. “The Old South had prejudice and intolerance,” she notes. “In the Old South, as an African American woman, I would have had to cater strictly to African Americans, but now it just doesn’t matter to people because they’re more concerned about professionalism and quality.”

With its white collar clientele — mostly comprised of government workers or professionals from nearby IBM, Glaxo Wellcome, Ericcson, and Motorola —Victoria’s Nails and Tanning offers clients a full range of nail services as well as tanning and waxing. Most of her female clients prefer fiberglass wraps, while the men like a manicure with a matte finish. Both sexes love the whirlpool pedicure spa.

Professionalism takes precedence over down-home warmth, and there’s no hint of country charm in the black, white, and gray furnishings or the off- peach walls. Instead, sleek and contemporary best describe the salon, with its mirrored displays and modern art in the reception area. “The modern decor and neutral colors appeal to both our male and female clients,” Lyons notes.

Tucked away in a five-room suite on the side of a two-story office building located just minutes from Research Triangle Park, the salon is hidden from passersby. “You have to know where we are to find us, which is what I wanted,” she says. “I want to cater to professionals and service clients by appointment only. I discourage walk-ins because they disrupt the flow in the salon.”

Still, Lyons can’t —and wouldn’t — escape some Southern stereotypes, such as her strong sense of family. When a previous job threatened to transfer her out-of-state several years ago, Lyons opted to quit because it would have meant leaving her family and a serious relationship behind. And when she in­terrupted our conversation to warmly greet her father-in-law and invite him to stop by her house later that afternoon, one understands that there are some things Southerners never leave behind, no matter where progress takes them.

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