Luvena Leslie snipped her first customer’s wavy locks, as two entrepreneurial sisters took part in an effort to revive a stretch of vacant Yale properties with a cluster of wellness-oriented stores.
Thursday was opening day at the Luvena Leslie Salon at 71 Audubon St., where 31-year-old Leslie has set up shop amidst a stretch of vacant storefronts owned by Yale.
On her first full day, she had eight clients booked, including one so loyal she made it her goal to be the salon’s first customer—and even showed up with a gift.
It’s that kind of loyalty that is the centerpiece of Leslie’s business plan. “I have really amazing clients,” she said. “I’m counting on how much people love me.”
Leslie said she’ll be part of a growing cluster of wellness-oriented stores in Yale properties along Audubon, which is rather dark and vacant these days.
That cluster includes a juice bar called Pure Health, which is “coming soon” at 99 Audubon. The Amadeus Center for Health & Healing is just around the corner on Lincoln Way.
All the storefronts between Leslie’s shop and the coming juicebar are vacant, including 77 (pictured), 83, 87 and 97 Audubon. Previous stores, including a toy shop and the Devil’s Gear Bike shop, have not been able to survive at that location. (Yale Properties couldn’t be reached Thursday or Friday for this story.)
In her three years at the Jo Bruno Salon on Whitney Avenue, Leslie earned a reputation as a popular and effervescent stylist with an expertise in handling curly and wavy locks.
Leslie left Jo Bruno earlier this summer. She had been planning to stay for five years, but on June 21 she peered through the tinted windows 71 Audubon, at what had been the Ivanova salon. That’s when she knew it was time to open her own place.
The next day, Leslie brought her sister to the vacant salon. She pronounced the space beautiful.
A week later they were partners. By Aug. 11 they had signed a lease, and the salon opened less than a month later.
Jones is handling the business side. “She’s OCD in the best sense,” said Leslie.
Jones earned her organizational skills with three small kids as well as having spent May 2009 to May 2010 with the 395th Combat Support Sustainment Battalion in Iraq. Jones will be at the salon from 9 to 3 and then home with her kids, who are all in school.
Leslie is a single mom who prior to this new venture had worked two jobs, as a stylist and also as a resident counselor for intellectually disabled adults in Branford.
Leslie said to open the place seemed close to predestined. “You’d think it’s luck. I prefer [to think of it as] it’s God’s favor from heaven.”
Leslie said she had “not a second of hesitation about starting the business. Someone was walking by and said, aren’t you scared? I said, ‘Scared of what?’”
And so far so good. She said the day after she signed the lease, clients were calling her. She’s booked up for this week and nearly booked up for two to three weeks ahead.
Leslie said Yale has been very supportive and is organizing an event to publicize the opening. Jones said after the salon gets off its feet, she wants to be involved in offering salon services to community groups with a focus on veterans.
On Thursday, Leslie was fully booked for opening day. Her first customer was Sarah Greenblatt, a social worker. “It was my goal to be her first client and I fulfilled it,” she said.
She gave Leslie bamboo plant for luck.
“Cutting hair is an art,” said Greenblatt as Leslie draped her in a black apron. And of Leslie, “she has it down.”
Cutting curly or wavy hair is even more of an art. When you find someone who understands it, you stick with them, said Greenblatt.
And no one can say that knowledge of curly hair isn’t personal with Luvena Leslie. She knows, for example, when you dry curly hair, you use a defusing dryer (pictured), that mitigates the heat so that fine hair like Greenblatt’s doesn’t get overwhelmed.
There’s more, however, to Leslie’s success than her expertise with curly hair, Greenblatt said. “The key to a good salon is listening to clients. She tries to get to know clients but in a non-intrusive way. She’s a curious and respectful person,” she said.
After drying, Greenblatt confessed that it is, secretly, her dream too to open a salon. “She’s just living my dream. I want to see her succeed so I’m telling everyone.”
Greenblatt thinks the block should not be difficult to make the business a success. She suggested mothers dropping off kids at the music school would be able to drop in to get their hair and nails done. The salon was an opportunity waiting for the right person, and that person is Leslie, she added.
At 9:45, as Greenblatt left, the second customer came in, equally excited. “I can’t believe you did this,” said Barbara Campbell (pictured in top photo), a businesswoman herself who appreciates what’s involved in opening a new venture.
“She’s so spiritual and has a lot of faith. She’s young, for her to take this step, she has a young child. You got to have a lot of faith,” she said of Leslie.
Campbell oohed when Leslie lifted her hair up off her neck. She said she would be totally transformed by 10:30 a.m.