Reporting, writing and photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti
For the last decade, Samantha Ballard has been traversing the cosmetology world, and now she’s in the center of it, as the owner of Akron Brow Bar, a newly unfurled eyebrow shop located at 822 W. Market St, wedged between the longstanding Square Records and Square Nightclub.
Akron Brow Bar, which specializes in facial threading, eyebrow tinting, and body threading, opened in September of this year- yes, in the midst of a pandemic.
“Yeah, isn’t that weird?” Ballard laughs. “It wasn’t supposed to happen.”
After seven years at another brow company, Ballard wanted to work for herself and give clients a warm personal experience. So Ballard made a business plan. She started doing things on the side. She got her licensing to own her own shop and formed an LLC.
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“And it’s funny because I never wanted to open a salon ever in my entire life. This was literally never the plan,” she says. “And now here I am, opening up my own salon.”
For Ballard, who thrives on genuine connection, leaving her long-held position meant also potentially leaving clients she had formed a relationship with over the years. “The hardest reason for leaving was that you still want to be there in those people’s lives,” she says. However, she’s found that some of those people have followed her, including folks who live over an hour and a half away.
“I’ve seen freshmen in high school, they grow, they become prom queen, you know, they’re now in college, they’re about to start graduating from college with their masters in something crazy like their doctorate and that is like the coolest thing,” Ballard says. “And I remember one of my favorites is- there was this guy, he started coming to me when I first started. He was really interested in this girl and he was like, ‘I think I’m going to ask her out. I’m pretty sure I’m going to ask her out.’ So he asks her out. They start dating. And then a little bit later as time goes on they get married. Then they get a house. Then they have a baby together. And then you see her pregnant and she brings in her baby and I remember them being in there […] like, ‘oh I don’t know what to name the baby, like here’s a list of names, what should we name?’ And then they ended up picking Carmella. I just think that’s the coolest thing ever because you get to see these important glimpses in people’s lives and you’re kind of like a part of that.”
At 25 years old, Ballard didn’t have the money to open her shop, so instead of the looming debt of a bank loan, her parents, who completely support her passion, lent her the cash, which she is almost done paying back.
“I remember on the phone one day talking to my mom, she was like, ‘Hey, I know I’m helping you, but if someone’s going to offer you help during this, you need to accept it, Sam.’ I don’t know where the pride came from. I don’t know why this huge independence..,” she says. “The biggest thing is guilt. I don’t want to feel like I owe anybody shit. And this [the business], I owe a lot of people a lot of stuff going forward,” she admits.
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While studying cosmetology, she wound up doing the eyebrows of her class peers. “Haircutting never made sense to me. But brows. There was a class of 22 girls and I did all their eyebrows,” she says.
Though the world of hair and beauty can be glamorous, there are sacrificial downsides. Ballard has had health issues because of her career, from calluses and bleeding fingers to TMJ flare ups and back problems. “I can start to feel it in my wrist sometimes. Like when I’m really busy,” she says. “Repetitive motion is really hard on the body. And that’s a big thing in the cosmetology world. You only have so many years of being able to do it until your body just deteriorates,” she says.
Like a game of Cat’s Cradle using different limbs of the body, Ballard illustrates the different techniques used in threading. Threading is a method of hair removal using cotton or polyester thread. “You can use your feet. I use my neck now. You can just use your hands.” With the thread wrapped around her foot, she depicts how one would use just their big toe, like a sewing machine, “Not stitching links together, but removing links,” she humors.
Since she’s been doing eyebrows, Ballard looks at people differently. “Before I started doing eyebrows, I’d always look at eyes. Now I look at eyebrows and then I look at your eyes. And in my head I’m just shaping them,” she admits.
Though Ballard doesn’t believe that everyone has to get their eyebrows done, she sees how things are shifting aesthetically during the current age of covering half our faces. “I think they’re important now, too, because we’re wearing masks, and that’s all people see on our faces is eyebrows and your eyes, and it makes a difference when you get them done, makes them pop,” she emphasizes.
“For me, too, it’s like my artwork,” Ballard adds. “That’s something that I did. I’m still always impressed with myself. Like, damn, I just changed your face, 100%.” Ballard also finds the activity cathartic: “It’s satisfying, ripping hairs out of people’s faces, I guess. Which sounds morbid and weird, but just getting that clean, crisp shape and that line of eyebrows is so nice,” she says.
For artists, and anyone navigating the landscape of being a business owner in the digital age and during a pandemic, advertising is critical. But Ballard didn’t even have social media until she opened Akron Brow Bar.
“I really hate that it is a platform to bring people in. I prefer just face to face with people, but obviously you can’t really do that because of COVID,” she says. In a pre-COVID world, Ballard’s natural inclination as an extrovert would have been to take a more traditional approach, “You’ve gotta hit the pavement. It’s as simple as it is going out there, broadcasting who you are, talking to people,” she says.
Trends on social media may not be Ballard’s thing, but interior design is. The front window to her shop displays plants, along with Ballard’s emotional support dog, Cillian. While Cillian isn’t for sale, the plants are, and Ballard is making plans to have more to offer. “We’re going to have a private makeup line. I want to sell candles. I’ve been talking to a girl about selling lingerie,” as well as masks, she adds. Consignment clothing from local women is also available for sale at the back of the shop.
“I’m a mom and pop shop. What makes it different? I think friendliness. I think a warm and inviting atmosphere. I think my warm, shiny personality bubbles through and I think that’s why people come to see me,” she laughs.
Akron Brow Bar also offers a professional part-time makeup artist, Briana Rawls, and is calling for booth rentals for a nail technician, hair stylists, massage and/or eyelashes. Local artists are also encouraged to sell their artwork on the shop’s walls.
Ilenia Pezzaniti is a multimedia storyteller and artist living in Highland Square.