Mirvat Essi Sande, Salon 515
On this episode of Working: Syracuse, we speak with Mirvat Essi Sande, owner and sole hairstylist of Salon 515, which sits in the heart
of Westcott Nation, an eclectic neighborhood known for
attracting students, young professionals, artists, and activists. Inside, the salon resembles an apartment,
which Sande designed to create the sense that clients were entering her home, and the conversations flow
freely. Whether it's a restaurant recommendation, the president's latest tweet, or an escape destination for
her or her client's next vacation, Sande enjoys and encourages conversation.
The salon sits above a
bar called Taps, a former funeral home owned by Essi Sande's brother and a favorite hangout for those looking
to have a beer and catch a Syracuse University game. In fact, two additional businesses — Munjed's and Mom's Diner — on that three-block stretch, are
also owned by relatives of Essi Sande, who moved from Jordan to the neighborhood with her 10 siblings in 1968.
Mirvat Essi Sande, owner of Salon 515, chats with longtime customer Annamaria Moneti about family and upcoming plans. Moneti moved here from Italy with her husband, and they both taught at Syracuse University.
With each client, Essi Sande considers it crucial to communicate and ask questions since terms such as "layering" may mean something completely different to the person in her chair than it does to the next client.
One window in Essi Sande's salon features two stained-glass-window panels created by her sister-in-law, Peggy Pulling. The third is a gift from her sister, Muna Pulling, who wanted to thank her for years of treating her niece and nephews to haircuts.
Essi Sande doesn't hesitate to stop while cutting or drying hair to listen and give her client more attention — no matter the topic or time limitations.
Essi Sande with her twin brother, Midhat. He often visits the salon to chat with her and her clients or to get a cup of coffee.
INTRO MUSIC: [Plodding bluesey guitar with organ accompaniment begins to play]
BRONTE SCHMIT, HOST: Hello and welcome to Working: Syracuse, the podcast inspired by
journalist Studs Terkel featuring Salt City residents talking about what they do to earn a paycheck and
how they find meaning in those jobs. I'm your host Bronte Schmit.
In this episode reporter Matt Mitchell spoke with Mirvat Essi Sande, a hairstylist and the owner of Salon
Five Fifteen, overlooking Westcott Street. The surrounding two block neighborhood — known for hipster
funkiness — features a vintage clothing store, live music venue, and coffee shop. Beneath Mirvat's salon
sits Taps, a funeral-parlor-turned bar, one of several properties owned and operated by her siblings.
As a reminder, the views expressed in this episode are those of the subject, and do not necessarily
reflect those of the Working: Syracuse staff.
INTRO MUSIC: [Plodding bluesey guitar with organ accompaniment fades out]
SOUND: [stair climbing – door to salon opens]
MATT MITCHELL: There are more than two dozen hair salons in the city of Syracuse.
Entering this one, you'll see a large Elvis clock and blown-glass paperweights on the window sill. And at
the center stands Mirvat, this salon's sole stylist.
MIRVAT SANDE: It does, I've tried to make it like you were coming to my home, you know.
So it's still comfortable because I think I got one review and I think that's exactly what she said; like
you're waiting for the dog to come out...so I think I've tried to make this a little bit more comfortable
situation about coming here...
Do you feel that... [fades out]
MATT MITCHELL: Light pours in through large windows, and the sun filters through
MIRVAT SANDE: I'm Mirvat Essi Sande, I own Salon 515 and I'm a hairstylist.
MATT MITCHELL: The business of hair is a personal one. She's known some clients for
years. But getting to know people quickly is part of the job.
MIRVAT SANDE: For me ... there's that nervousness at the very beginning. You're getting a
new client, you don't know what their hair is like, what you're gonna have to do. Those are biggies for us hairstylists. That's the first time you're gonna see 'em! You can't get on the phone and go "hey is your hair
nappy? Is it straight?" You just don't do that!
Once somebody has walked in, for me, I put myself in the situation. She's coming in, she doesn't know what
I'm gonna do to her hair. There's a certain amount of comfortability I gotta show you too. I still carry a
little bit of uncomfortableness in myself I think... [fades out]
SOUND: [hair dryer starts]
MATT MITCHELL: Her job is a masterclass in juggling roles. She plays the part of
consultant, hairstylist, confidant, and perhaps most importantly, hostess.
MIRVAT SANDE: For me it just comes – I don't wanna say natural – hospitality's a big
thing in our culture too. That's why Arabs are like "Eat! You want - You hungry? How 'bout just eating!"
[laughter] it's almost overwhelming sometimes... [fades out]
MATT MITCHELL: That hospitable urge began early. As a child her family left Jordan,
flying 9,000 miles to start a new life in Syracuse. Her parents were anxious about what awaited them in
America. But Mirvat? She had one goal in mind.
MIRVAT SANDE: I wanted to be a flight attendant and, of course, I embarrassed all my
siblings, I was on KLM airlines they gave me the little pillbox hat. And I got to give up back then honey,
you got little tiles and they had chocolate on top, swiss chocolate from KLM so I was the flight attendant
at 7 or 8 years old giving out chocolates. It was a big adventure. We came here... [fades out]
MATT MITCHELL: The local weather took some getting used to. Back in Jordan, you might not
see a raindrop from May to October. But as she puts the final touches on a client's blowout, she explains
that the climate was far from the biggest adjustment. Moving to a college town like Syracuse presented a
few culture shocks to her mother.
MIRVAT SANDE: Having such a big family and being, you know, from the Middle East, my
family tried to hold as much as they could to our culture. Tradition was tradition. We spoke Arabic, we
ate Arabic food. My mom barely spoke English. The only English she knew was from soap operas, OK.
There was a girl kissing in front of our house on Victoria, two girls kissing, and my mother came outside
saying [feigning Jordanian accent] "Hey! Hey you! Lesbanese!" I said "what the hell is that? Is that half
lesbian and half Lebanese? [laughter] Did you make her into an Arab, all of a sudden?" [voice breaks with
MATT MITCHELL: Mirvat's hair is full, dark, wavy, curly, and there's a lot of it. Gold
and silver bangles extend up her arms, and she wears rings on nearly every finger. It's been her business
to stay on top of trends. Since her start in the early 80s, she learned mastering hair fads can pay off
down the road.
MIRVAT SANDE: When I started doing hair in 1983, that was like punk rock, MTV, so videos.
Right? So you got to see what they looked like, and they had those funky hairdos. The hipster haircuts
going on now, was called the surfer haircut back then, or, you know, the punk rock. The only difference
was hairstylists were doing them instead of barbers so those clipper cuts where they've got them all
shaved in the back, we were doing them with scissor over comb... [fades out]
SOUND: [Hair being washed; tap running]
MATT MITCHELL: But you don't become a great hairstylist just by studying fashion icons.
It also demands some special interpersonal skills.
MIRVAT SANDE: The thing people don't expect that it's not always easy and there's, like,
an "ew" factor. For me, the grossest in my whole career, it was somebody I knew. Her daughter had really
long hair and would not take care of it. Her mom calls and goes "she's not brushing her hair, it's
knotty. We're going to cut it." Well, she had lice. She has to leave the salon. But the good thing is, I
saw it right away. Drop everything. Everything goes to get washed, sanitized, whatever. I think it was
more scary to me than gross because, god forbid, that was ever to spread in my salon... [fades out]
MATT MITCHELL: Luckily, an infectious energy is the only things that spreads in her
salon. Every meeting with Mirvat is an upbeat experience, even if it begins by feeling underdressed.
Unfailingly fashionable, she sees hair as the crown jewel of someone's personal style. And even though her
road to hair fashion started early, that path is littered with plenty of "wardrobe
MIRVAT SANDE: OK, so when you're in beauty school, you learn how to cut hair with angles,
OK. And, depending on you hold the hair at any one of those angles is going to give you whatever effect.
So, I had learned all the angles in school that day. (laughing) and I had a sister that needed a haircut
and "ooh what a great idea."
SOUND: [Hairdryer briefly blows]
I think this angle, if I cut the sides using that angle, ooh this haircut's gonna look good. No it didn't.
I think I put every angle in that one haircut. [laughing] I probably ended up blowing it dry for her every
day until it grew out.
MATT MITCHELL: But these missteps served her well. After school she was ready to go pro.
MIRVAT SANDE: At the time I started salons were all… you worked for them. You didn't have
your own. So you apprenticeshipped if you went to a really nice salon. And that's what I did. I went to the nicest salon. I thought why not start at the top and work my way down? [laughing] The guy happened to
need an assistant. So I walked in, he hired me, I assisted for a few months through his clients; training
with him, putting on color, doing all that. That's how it started for me. It was a time when guys were kind of new
to coming to hair salons instead of barbers. They got me started on doing a lot of guy haircuts. Plus,
nine brothers and sisters. I used to bring them all in, to train. I'll go from oldest to youngest.
Majdoline, Majida, Majid, Majdi, Maher, Maha, Munja, Munjed, Midhat. I was amazing because for this salon,
they required that you worked a year before you got your own chair. I got it it two months. I think I
started end of October and got it in December. My own chair... [fades out]
MATT MITCHELL: The owner sold that salon and, before long, she'd meet her husband and
head south, working as a stylist in Florida. But after a baby boy arrived, she knew her ideal salon was a
one chair operation.
MIRVAT SANDE: I moved back and I couldn't do it. I couldn't work for somebody anymore. I
was just too old. I needed to have my own hours, be able to raise my kid. And then my brother came into
this opportunity of this empty space to open up my own salon. So there's the bar downstairs, it used to be
a funeral home and people lived up here which was their apartment and downstairs was the funeral home. So
now there's a bar downstairs and up here, I've made it my salon. I was blessed to be able to have my own
place and be able to keep it going with just myself working.
SOUND: [Mirvat continues murmuring]
MATT MITCHELL: Going it alone can be tough. But it also means getting to decide
MIRVAT SANDE: I almost hired somebody and the first thing she did after she was picking
where she was going be in the salon to work, she gave me a list of things I couldn't talk about in front
of her clients. I guess she heard me talk (laughing). I did not want that. I wanted to be me.
MATT MITCHELL: The one-on-one nature of the business clearly suits her. She wants to make
people happy. And not just clients. Friends. Strangers. The mailman dropping off junk mail. People are
drawn to her, and vice versa.
SOUND: [Clippers buzzing]
MIRVAT SANDE: You have to be able to click with somebody. Again, you're in somebody's
personal space. There's something about my personality that likes people… most of the time. [laughter] And
I think that cutting hair and stuff is kind of personal, right? So I think there's a relationship aspect
of it I like. You know, I've gotten to where I can read people a little bit. If somebody's kinda quiet and
gives me one or two words, I'll stay quiet. They're paying for that hour they booked and from the minute
they walk in, it's their time... [fades out]
MATT MITCHELL: She confesses a deep desire to please... which can be hard in this kind of
SOUND: [Clippers buzzing]
MIRVAT SANDE: You want to be good. You wanna be perfect. That's not the way it is. It's
hard if somebody's not satisfied; if I can't please somebody. But I've also realized you can't please
I've never had anybody go nuts in my chair, like "oh my gosh, what did you do?" But there's been like body
language or actions or whatever and then somebody doesn't show up. So you kinda know. Does it make you
feel bad? Yeah. That feeling I don't like.
MATT MITCHELL: Mirvat should feel good about her job security. After all, hair's a two
person job, right? One to grow and another to cut. But a hundred years from now, does she think hair
stylists like her will still be around?
MIRVAT SANDE: I would be surprised if they weren't. Because I can't come up with any
other way they could do it. They tried. They came up with that Flowbee. Did you see that? [laughing]. I
don't know. Are we gonna go in a hundred years to just robots? Then, how many people are going to be left?
I don't know. [more laughter]
MATT MITCHELL: For those unfamiliar, the Flowbee is a small shopvac that promised 1980s
America "perfect haircuts for the whole family." But as someone who's used a Flowbee to butcher a loved
one's hair, I can safely say the robot hair cutting revolution is not looming. And besides, at its best,
the job extends beneath the roots, too.
MIRVAT SANDE: I was trained to book an hour for every haircut. It should only take you
10-15 minutes to do a haircut. An hour because that's the personal time you give to somebody. It's like
SOUND: [Mirvat to client: "It looks good, do you like it? Do you see it? Now we've layered it a
BRONTE SCHMIT, HOST:Thanks Matt. When not in her salon, Mirvat can be found at Syracuse
estate sales. A big fan of 50s style, a parking spot in her garage is currently occupied by an elegant
mid-century dresser... which we're told was "a deal too good to pass up."
OUTRO MUSIC: [Plodding bluesey guitar with organ accompaniment fades up]
BRONTE SCHMIT, HOST:Thanks again to Matt for speaking with Mirvat. This episode was
written and produced by Matt Mitchell, with help from Julianna Whiteway. Our theme music was by Logan
I've been Bronte Schmit. It's time for us to clock out.
OUTRO MUSIC: [Plodding bluesey guitar with organ accompaniment ends]