Paying it forward: Napa hair salon continues tradition with new owner | Business

Robert Hundley

Janet “JJ” Johnson is passing her beauty salon — Napa’s Hair Odyssey — down to her coworker, the same way the business was passed down to her by the previous owners.

Karina Gaspar officially took over the Lincoln Avenue salon on Jan. 1.

It’s a matter of paying it forward, Johnson said.

A native of a small Minnesota town, Johnson had been a dance instructor and worked in the sheriff’s department’s criminal records division before landing on cosmetology as her career, she said.

“I wanted to make a move to be more independent on my own,” she said. “I was considering options for careers.”

Johnson said that though she used to “play with” her own hair and enjoyed working on the hair of neighbors and friends, her mother would force her to give her sisters permanent waves — something neither party enjoyed.

“My mom would make me give my sisters perms and they would cry and it never occurred to me it might be a career choice,” she said. “I didn’t like it back then, and it wasn’t on my radar until I needed to make a change. So, I thought if I went to school for it and learned to do it properly, I’d like it better.”

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But, while her future career didn’t occur to Johnson, it evidently did occur to someone on her high school yearbook staff, she said.

“What really upset me in my senior yearbook, someone on the committee took it upon themselves to put under my picture ‘cosmetology’ as my future plans. I don’t know who it was, but they saw something I didn’t,” she said. “I had no direction at that point.”

Here’s how it all happened, Johnson said.

“Hair Odyssey was opened by four ladies in 1980, and one of them is a sister to my brother-in-law,” she said. “So, one by one, they were retiring, and when the last couple were getting ready to retire, they called me to see if I’d be willing to take it over and take care of their clients.”

However, Johnson said she had tried salon ownership before, and the experience was less than positive.

“So, I agonized over the decision, but it turned out to be the best decision,” she said. “They didn’t sell it to me. I took over the business and the lease. And that’s what I’m doing now with Karina. Paying it forward to a very deserving, capable, and lovely person.”

Gaspar, a 28-year-old Napa Valley native, came to Hair Odyssey straight out of cosmetology school, both women said.

“I’ve been with the salon for eight years, but I’ve been into hair since I was a little girl,” she said. “But, never in my life did I imagine myself in this career.”

While still in high school, her talent styling her own hair prompted many of the senior girls to ask her to do theirs, but, shortly after graduating high school, Gaspar became a mother, and was attending Napa Valley College, with an eye to becoming a teacher, she said.

“I wasn’t happy, so, I looked up beauty schools and found Le Mélange Hair Academy in Napa and called them, got a tour, and next thing you know, I applied and I got in,” Gaspar said.

“One day I was sitting in my room with my daughter and something told me to search up beauty schools and something said I had to do this, which I did with the support with my now-husband and my mom and mother-in-law.”

Gaspar said being handed the salon is literally the realization of a dream.

“Ever since I started doing hair I dreamed of owning my own salon, and I never imagined that this day would come,” she said.

It nearly didn’t, Gaspar said.

“In high school, they offered an ROP (Regional Occupational Program) for things like cosmetology and nursing, and they would send you to the Vintage Hair Academy, but I thought to do it as a senior, but by that time, that program was no longer an option.”

She had to pay her own way through when the opportunity arose.

Johnson said this transition feels like it was meant to be.

“When I first took over this salon, I brought my own customers and (those of) the former owners, and I was overwhelmed, and I was telling one of the previous owners how overwhelmed I was, at 10 p.m. and still at work, and she said, ‘Why not call Karina, that girl in beauty school who came to watch us cut hair that time,’ and I did. She was like an angel. She took the pressure off. I could not have asked for a better assistant. She was amazing.”

Things tend to work out for the best, Johnson said.

“Here we are and I couldn’t be happier about this whole transition,” she said. “It feels great. She’s really like a daughter to me and I’d do anything to help her out. We’re very close. She started with me right after beauty school and staying so long in one salon is rare in the industry. I’m happy to turn this over to her and give her the opportunity to have a business.”

Though Johnson plans to stay on part-time for at least a year, as an advisor and to do hair, she said she’ll miss “the ownership pride, but I’m so happy with the direction this is going to go. I’m still going to do hair, so I won’t be missing my customers. I have the best of both worlds.”

She won’t miss the responsibilities of ownership; of “being on my own dealing with issues.”

“I’m encouraging (Gaspar) to make this nearly 40-year-old place hers; to give the salon a new life with her young vibe,” Johnson said.

Gaspar said she plans to do exactly that, though there are no specifics, yet.

“I’m not exactly sure what the changes will be but I do want to bring in some of my own personal touches,” she said.

But, mostly, she’s pleased to be able to continue making clients feel good about their appearance, she said, adding that that is the best part of her job.

“Making people feel more beautiful, bringing their beauty out, seeing their face after the service and seeing how beautiful they feel,” she said.

Not that there isn’t a downside.

“The long hours on your feet is challenging, Gaspar said. “Sometimes you don’t get to eat ‘till the end of the day, and not everyone understands that all the time. And sacrificing being with your family. That’s why I’m so emotional. I used to have to give up family events when (my children) were small. But it’s all paying off.”

Both women say they like the idea of paying it forward with the salon and hope it can continue into the next generation.

“I’m so happy and thankful that I came into JJ’s life at the right time. She was my mentor, and everything at that right moment,” Gaspar said. “I’m so proud. Of myself, the long hours worked. So happy and so proud that I finally did it, with the love and support of my family friends, clients. And of course JJ, my mentor. My daughter, who’s 9, whenever they ask her what she wants to be when she grows up she says ‘a hairstylist like my mom.’ If she still wants to do that when she grows up, the salon can be passed on to her like it was passed on to JJ and then to me.”

Hair Odyssey is located at 1111 Lincoln Ave., Napa, 707 224-5452.

You can reach reporter Jennifer Huffman at 256-2218 or [email protected]

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