CAPITOL HEIGHTS, Md. — In low-slung suburban strip malls, nestled among fast-food restaurants and auto supply stores, hair salons are sprouting like mushrooms.
The Census Bureau recently noted their jump in an otherwise glum report about mom-and-pop businesses, stating that the number of hairdressers and barbers and the shops they work in grew by about 8 percent from 2008 to 2009, one of the few industries to register growth in a tough economic climate.
It seems that getting a haircut is one expense that consumers are reluctant to give up. And people who run salons never have to fret that their work might be outsourced. “We don’t have to worry about someone flying to China to get their hair cut,” said Charles Kirkpatrick, director of the National Association of Barber Boards of America. “Barbering is not going away.”
Here in Prince George’s County, the number of hairstylists and beauty salons rose by 10 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to the census data, which came from a survey of the country’s smallest businesses, owned and operated by a single person. In Washington, they jumped 18 percent.
One reason may be that people who were battered in the economic downturn turned to haircutting as a quick career change. Fabulocs, a hair salon in Capitol Heights, employs several refugees from the recession. One has a master’s degree in education. Another worked as a manager at a Circuit City store. Seven of the nine stylists there had been to college.
“It’s a sensitive subject,” said Nimat Bilal-Young, 34, the owner. “That moment of, ‘You’ve got a master’s degree and you’re a stylist?’ ”
Ms. Bilal-Young has tapped into a growing demand among black women for natural hairstyles. Her salon now has 12,000 Facebook followers, a line of hair care products and more clients than she can handle. She is considering franchising.
“It’s not like other industries where you’re trying to find customers,” she said. “The customers are trying to find you.”
Tarsa Scott, a single mother, started working with hair in 2008 after her business as a real estate broker dried up. She works full time as an administrator for the United Negro College Fund but supplements her income with work at the salon at night and on Saturdays.
“I wanted to do something the market wouldn’t have such a drastic effect on,” said Ms. Scott, 37. “Women may slow down with how often they get their hair done, but they’ll always get it done.”
Customers at the salon said they refused to cut back on the money they spent on their hair, even as they scrimped on things like vacations. “It’s just part of my budget, like keeping the lights on,” said Rochelle Mills, 38, who works at the Department of Justice. “I’ll forgo a lot of things, but not my hair.”
Getting your hair done, said Ms. Bilal-Young, “is like when your house is clean. Everything seems better.”
The number of barber licenses across the country has been rising, with about 250,000 now, said Mr. Kirkpatrick of the Association of Barber Boards, up from 190,000 in the 1980s. Since 2008, the number of barber licenses in Maryland has increased by more than 60 percent to about 5,000 now, according to Phil Mazza, a member of the State Board of Cosmetologists.
Another reason for the rising number of haircutters could be the hot weather in recent years, Mr. Kirkpatrick mused. Or the fact that the country has been at war for the past decade, and the military is setting a broader style for short locks.
Or even, he said, the recession.