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Sidney’s salon is an oasis

Photograph of Sidney by Kathi O'Leary

By Kathi O’Leary

ON A CHARMING block of Sutter Street that narrowly missed the wrecking ball of redevelopment 50 years ago, Sidney Hair Care sits among Victorian homes, small shops and the Macedonia Baptist Church.

Sidney, the professional name of Betty Jean Macklin, has cared for clients of all races and walks of life at this shop since 1988. Even before then, she was cutting, perming, relaxing and coloring hair in salons nearby, and gone by, including Jose La Crosby, Patrick’s Barber Shop, Darrnell’s and Ivory’s.

“I am part of a 60-year tradition in this very location as an African American owned and operated hair salon,” she says. “And there aren’t too many of us left in this town who can say that.”

With its understated facade and dark sheer curtains, the long and narrow shop at 2174 Sutter Street seems like a throwback — not only in appearance, but also in the personal interactions of owner and clientele. Sidney’s salon is a neighborhood hub for sharing gossip and talking politics; there’s a photo of her with Bill Clinton hanging near the door.

It’s also a place for sharing personal stories, much in the tradition of beauty shops in the South, where African American women could run their own businesses and turn them into community gathering places.

In that way, Sidney’s feels private, intimate and buzzing with life. But the shop is a calming and reassuring place as well. A sign taped between the oversized round mirrors warns: “Respect the oasis.” And an oasis is just how it feels, with the comforting chit-chat backed up by Ella, Frank or — Sidney’s favorite — Jimmy Reed. There is no Pandora or Muzak at this salon.

Deftly handling three or more clients at once in vintage salon chairs refurbished by Sal Valesco, the late upholsterer down the block, Sidney stops to dish out homemade soup and warm blankets to clients under the dryers so that everybody is cozy and fed before the comb-out.

Sidney, with her deep and loving laugh and eternal optimism, is also well known to her customers as a comedienne and singer. In fact, a karaoke machine sits between the hair dryers ready for use. “I’m a frustrated singer without a voice and, you know, I have a captive audience,” she says, pointing to the machine.

Deeply devoted to the neighborhood and her diverse clientele, Sidney has loyal customers going back 30 years. As an octogenarian arrives at the shop on a walker, thankful for the street level entrance and extra attention, a young professional man departs on his motorcycle, his long and shining hair blowing in the breeze.

This vestige of a once-thriving African American neighborhood is now threatened with a new redevelopment. Sidney has been warned she may be evicted soon if the owner of the building goes forward with renovation plans that will force her to vacate the space. She’s waiting it out, hoping her shop can last a few more years.

Photograph of Sidney outside her Sutter Street salon by Kathi O'Leary