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Center Coiffures: 50 years of story-telling, perms, friendships

Betty Richards gets a cut from her daughter Judy Ford during one of her Friday morning visits to Center Coiffures, which Richards started 50 years ago. The mirrors have been in the shop for all those years, starting when it was in the Renton Center. - Dean A. Radford/Renton Reporter
Betty Richards gets a cut from her daughter Judy Ford during one of her Friday morning visits to Center Coiffures, which Richards started 50 years ago. The mirrors have been in the shop for all those years, starting when it was in the Renton Center.
— image credit: Dean A. Radford/Renton Reporter

For 50 years the news – and the gossip – of Renton has been told and retold from the hairstyling chairs at Center Coiffures.
"If you want to know what's going on in town, come get your hair done," says Mike O'Connell, a longtime stylist and one-time owner of the salon.
Center Coiffures is marking its anniversary this month, even though its lineage goes back a little earlier, to when Betty Richards started her career at Renton Beauty Salon at the Renton Center on Rainier Avenue.
The year was 1960 and Renton Center was still a work in progress. But it had the beauty salon and a barber shop a couple doors down. Richards walked into the salon, looking for a job, fresh from graduating from Bennett's Beauty School on Main Avenue in Renton.
"I got the job," said Richards, who was 30 when she enrolled at Bennett's. "It's the only place I've ever worked."
But the salon ran into financial trouble. She arrived one morning to find the front door padlocked. The developer of Renton Center, Robert Edwards, worked out a deal that allowed her to manage the shop. In late 1962, she bought the salon outright. She built a flourishing business and gave a generation of hairstylists a start.
She changed the name to Center Coiffures, heralded by a sign made of wood. An important event had happened months earlier. On March 6, 1962, the Renton Center held its grand opening, featuring a Market Basket grocery store, a Sears store and an interior open-air mall with a stage and fountain.
Now 84, Richards enjoys being a regular Friday morning customer at her salon, now owned by her daughter, Judy Ford.
Ford and O'Connell are marking the date Renton Center held its grand opening to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the hair salon.
The 1960s were a time of big hair, bleach and hair pieces, a "stylish time," said Ford. Women had their hair done every week, a standing appointment, much like many do today.
A shampoo, style and set was $3.50, plus a 50-cent tip. Haircuts for men were $3.
The price today is about $20.
There were lots of "specials" along the way. In 1989 during a 48-day strike Boeing workers could get a haircut for $7.47, if they showed their badge.
In those 50 years, styles have changed and Richards, Ford and O'Connell and their co-workers have adapted. Working beside them are Jeana Mar, Carol Braunschweig and Georgia Pine.
They offer cuts for kids and trick colors and foils.
"We have had to conform to each younger group, which keeps us alive," Ford said.
O'Connell likens Center Coiffures to that famous TV show "Cheers," a bar where everyone knows your name. But "All in the Family" also works.
Richards sold the salon to O'Connell in 1979, when she moved with her late husband Bill to Arizona.
"It was March when you finally hung up your comb," O'Connell said, during a morning of reminiscing.
O'Connell owned the salon when it moved to its current location in October 1990, a few years before Renton Center was turned into an enclosed Fred Meyer store.
And, in 1998, Ford bought the salon from O'Connell.
"It just keeps going back and forth," said Ford.
It's easy to see why.
"Mike is like a son to me," said Richards.
"I've worked with him for 40 years," said Ford.
They're "like brother and sister," said Richards. She hired O'Connell right out of beauty school, after he cut her hair on a Sunday.
They swear they should write a book. Of course, they would have to write about the horse manure that piled up under their chairs.
Center Coiffures was probably the closest salon to Longacres racetrack. So it attracted a lot of horse owners, trainers and their wives. The chairs had small foot rests.
"The horse manure and the straw would just pile up under there," O'Connell said.
The Seattle PI took a picture of Richards braiding a horse's tail at the track in the early 1960s. Beside her was her sister Peggy Bevan, one of the first female horse trainers in the state.
The memories constantly go back to the relationships the three have made with their customers. It's a relationship that extends all the way to death.
In the back of the shop is a wall filled with obituaries of customers. "They mean something to us," O'Connell said.
At a family's request, they'll come to a funeral home for a final styling.
"It's the last favor we can do for their loyalty, coming to us all these years," O'Connell said.

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