Richmond's secret salon in the sky
Even if you know how to get to G G Hair Salon, it’s complicated.
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Longtime Richmondites like Ed and Betty Hoyland are often at Julie Ghassemian’s salon, talking everything from politics to gas prices to the old days of a flatter Richmond.
“We used to call it Ditchmond,” said Ed, a retired engineer, who came to Richmond from England in 1973 with his wife.
Ghassemian, who came from Montreal in 1988, also remembers days with more ditches.
“My son used to grab frogs from them and put them in his pocket!” she said.
You might imagine these conversations, always over tea, taking place in a salon on some neighbourly high street. But G G Hair Salon is very, very hidden.
Ghassemian used to work in salons at busy Richmond locations – Woodward’s, Richmond Centre, Broadmoor Village on No. 3 Road, a medical building across from Richmond Hospital – but her current salon of over a decade is the opposite of convenience.
“There’s no way new customers can know where I am,” said Ghassemian.
G G Hair Salon is sandwiched in the middle of three levels of parking in the shadow of three 17-storey highrises, completed in 1973. The entrance faces an elevated plaza and an outdoor pool. You can get there by driving up a ramp (or walking up, but there’s no sidewalk) or going to the B tower and pressing 110 for Ghassemian to buzz you in and ride the elevator to her level.
Even if you know how to get there, it’s complicated.
This is Richmond’s Park Towers. They’re three brick-clad, rectangular slab highrises between Minoru Park and Richmond Centre. You might recognize this kind of architecture from Toronto’s St. James Town, Canada’s largest highrise community, but it’s rare in Metro Vancouver.
Park Towers are Richmond’s first highrises, designed by famed local architects Erickson & Massey Associates. Its original ad booklet boasts modern highrise living “for people who require Comfort, Conveniences, and the Ultimate in Gracious Living… with details you never dreamed would be available,” like “shag carpets,” “luxurious drapes,” “a security guard for your protection,” saunas, shuffleboards and two pools.
Remnants of a different era were present in the Park Towers salon before Ghassemian took over.
“You know that movie with Julia Roberts? Steel Magnolias? It originally looked like the salon from that. Oh my gosh – there was an ashtray in the dryer chair.”
Park Towers was the product of mid-20th century, modernist city-building that heralded cars, highways and highrises as the future. Using land zoning, home life was kept separate from shops, work and industry.
So why is there a salon at the heart of Park Towers?
There isn’t supposed to be, as the site is zoned residential, according Richmond spokesperson Ted Townsend. The salon is considered a non-conforming use, but the city has no information on how that exemption was made. If the salon ever closes, a new business is not allowed to take its place.
The city archives couldn’t find an answer either, though old address books reveal that a Park Towers Beauty Salon first appeared in 1976. Before that? A map of Park Towers in an ad booklet shows a rec room at the salon’s location.
Bill Sorenson, president of the strata council for over two decades, said there was always a salon, and welcomed Ghassemian in 2006 to keep it going. He heard the woman who ran the original salon in 1976 was a relative of the developer, the late Ben Dayson of Dayhu Investments.
Dayhu didn’t respond to Metro’s inquiry, but the nephew of architect Arthur Erickson did. Geoffrey Erickson, the director of the website of his uncle’s work, was unable to find it in the architect’s inventory of projects, but is looking into it, and thanked Metro for bringing the project to his attention.
Ghassemian suspects part of her salon was once a change room for the outdoor pool she faces because her washroom has tiled floors, hook racks for clothes and a shower.
On hot days, she’ll go for a dip in the pool herself. A plus of the location.
“I like it a lot,” she said. “It’s cozy. It’s tucked away. It’s private. But I don’t have any foot traffic. I did everything to bring the business in.” She asked friends and customers for referrals, and put ads in the paper and pink flyers in the tower lobbies.
The salon’s origins remain a mystery, but Ghassemian’s clients from previous salons, like the Hoylands, will venture to the heart of the towers to see her, have a cup of tea and share some stories.
Ghassemian loves the people she’s met over the years. And visit by visit, life passes by.
“One day they’re in diapers, then they’re getting married.”