‘From the Gegent’ is a series of articles featuring businesses, services and the people behind them in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn. Presented by Mica Soffer, owner and publisher of community news service COLlive.com and neighborhood directory gegent.com:
Photos: Chana Levine
High school graduates of Beis Rivka in Crown Heights in 2002 were asked the staple yearbook question, “What will you be doing in 10 years.” The answer given by Sarah Shagalov was “Have my own hair salon.”
Born and raised in Crown Heights, Sarah was 10 years old when her family moved to Israel, spending most of her school years there before returning to Crown Heights to graduate.
“From the age of 14, I knew I wanted a career in doing hair,” she says. “Even in high school, I was already giving my friends haircuts and styling their hair during recess time.”
Being in a Chabad girls seminary in Capetown, South Africa, gave her the opportunity to gain hands-on experience when her classmates discovered she had a talent for cutting and styling hair.
“As it goes in seminary, we all became really good friends, and they really trusted me,” she recalls. “They allowed me to cut and style their hair all year long. There were a variety of girls there so I had the opportunity to work with all styles and textures.”
She then enrolled in the LIBS Beauty School, today Empire Beauty School in Manhattan. “Doing hair is something I’ve always been ambitious about, but just being self-taught wasn’t enough for me,” she says. “I wanted a real career, to have a business on a professional level.”
Fast forward to 2018: She is now Sarah Abikassis, 33, married, a mother of 3, and proud owner of the full-service salon “Hair Lounge by Sarah” centrally located on Kingston Avenue in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood.
The popular salon and wig shop is bustling all day long, where Sarah and a team of professional stylists and colorists offer hair and wig styling, dyeing, customizing of wig fronts, and more.
The jump, from dreaming about cutting hair to owning a storefront, wasn’t and isn’t easy and took years of dedicated work, beginning with working as an employee in other salons and gaining experience.
She credits her husband, Nati Abikassis, for helping her follow her dreams. “While we were dating, I told him of my passion for this and my goals, and he has always encouraged me, always pushed me to keep going. He believed in me when I sometimes didn’t believe in myself.”
As a young newlywed, she began cutting and styling from home and then got an offer to rent out space in the hosiery and accessories store “Que Cosabella” at 370 Kingston Avenue.
Sarah made the corner of the shop her own, putting in a little sink and setting up shop. Before long, she says, women kept coming in for hair and wigs, even more than were coming in for hosiery and jewelry.
Soon, she went into partnership with the store’s owner and eventually bought out the partner in January 2012 to become sole owner of the “Scissor Palace” business.
“It was a little scary for me at first,” she says, “I have no problem doing the physical work, I can be in the salon cutting hair for 12 hours a day, no problem. But suddenly I had to deal with all the other aspects of the business which had not been my responsibility before, such as accounting, paperwork, and all the behind the scenes tasks, and that was all new to me and quite an adjustment.”
But the main focus of her business, Sarah explains, was and remains the building of relationships with her customers.
“It starts with meeting the mom of the five-year-old and giving her a haircut, and if that experience was good, when her older daughter gets engaged, she asks to drop off her wig for a wash and set, and so on. It’s all about getting to know your customers and their families,” she says.
Through the years, Sarah kept honing her talent. “When I work with someone, I work with their bone structure. I can sell a sheitel with the same look to five different people, but I will do a different tweak for each of them, because each has a different shape face and jawline. In styling, when you pinpoint based on the person’s face, where to cut, it makes all the difference. It can make a person look better, or younger.”
Today, the business is named Hair Lounge by Sarah, “and my dream finally came true,” she says. “I waited until I could put my own stamp on the store, which pushed me in the direction of doing even more sales, and eventually I started my own wig line.”
The line of Sarah wigs, which are created from Brazilian hair and made in Israel, are the result of years of hearing from her clients what they look for in a wig, and what features they are looking for as far as comfort, quality and texture.
“My motto is ‘the customer is always right – even when they’re wrong,'” she says. “It’s the small things that can create a success, and if you stand by your word you can create and keep a clientele.”
But she admits that the clients she gets most excited about are brides.
“They are coming to me fresh and excited, and never had a bad experience yet. So to give them their first experience in buying a wig, and make them feel beautiful, is extremely rewarding,” she says.
“I always tell Kallahs, the day after you get married, people will look first at your sheitel, before they even look at your diamond ring. They want to feel beautiful. So I really love when kallahs come in, it really warms my heart, especially when they are recommended by other customers.”
Being a working parent has its challenges, Sarah says, and having a local business is definitely a perk.
“Running a business and caring for a family takes a lot of help from others, a lot of dealing with the kids, and buses, and everything else, but you make it work. It’s such a bracha to have a job and especially in the community where I live, and to be my own boss, I feel very fortunate.”
“I also love the fact that my children see that both mom and dad work,” she says, referring to her husband’s restaurant Mendy’s Deli down the road on Kingston and Eastern Parkway.
“The kids have that sense of work ethic and responsibility,” she says. “I think it’s an important factor in raising well-rounded kids who have drech eretz and to know that hard work is something important. It’s a wonderful thing for them to see their parents work, and still make time for their family.”
“I do love the fact that we are a storefront,” she says. “People really love and appreciate that they can walk in at any time, we are centrally located on Kingston Avenue, and someone is always there to help.
“I want people to leave happier than when they came in. I think that is what has kept my doors open for 10 years now, even with all the evolving of the neighborhood. I am so thankful to the community for all the relationships I’ve built and keeping me going.”
And when it’s quiet in the salon, Sarah says she opens a Tehillim and recites a few verses. “When I put it down, someone will walk in and ask to buy a new wig…”