Earnestine’s Beauty Shop closes after 41 years in South Dallas
Earnestine Tarrant props her feet up on a stool and leans back in the faux leather chair intended for her shampoo bowl. This is her time to rest while a client sits under one of the two hooded dryers in her hair salon.
Except for the 13-inch TV playing the local news and the hum of the dryer, it’s quiet.
That’s unusual for the South Dallas beauty shop on the corner of Metropolitan Avenue and Ruskin Street among other modest homes. On any given day, people used to sit elbow to elbow in the handful of waiting chairs lined up against the wall, in a vacant dryer seat, or anywhere they could find space. Kids would hide under the chair legs, the shampoo bowl or styling dresser.
Earnestine Tarrant washes the hair of client Vera Harris at her hair salon in South Dallas on her final day of work before her retirement, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020. (Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)
Customers waiting on the stoop outside or in their cars used to pop in to grab a pickle or a roll of Life Savers Gummies. And the smell of smoking hot combs and electric curlers would mingle with coffee, warm doughnuts or whatever the meal of the day was.
Those days are now a distant memory in a year with a pandemic that briefly closed businesses like hers.
The sound of a phone ringing interrupted Tarrant’s thoughts. Barely leaving her seat, she reached over the styling chair to grab the landline.
“Beauty shop,” she answered, the same way she has for the past 41 years.
After a pause, Tarrant shook her head. “I’m sorry, I can’t accept any new clients.”
The phrase felt foreign leaving her mouth. Tarrant’s almost never turned away customers — even if they couldn’t pay.
But at 80 years old, she decided to close this community fixture inside the little white house on the corner.
Earnestine’s Beauty Shop occupied half of the home from 1979 until New Year’s Eve of 2020. The one-room salon with green linoleum floors had one bathroom and a small room for the water heater. Shelves above the washing bowl held shampoo, conditioner, and products for color-treated hair.
Pressing combs, curlers, hair grease and spray sat an arms-length away on the styling station — a wooden dresser painted green, now chipped from age. Assorted curling rods sat in a three-drawer plastic organizer by the door, and two paces toward the back was the snack table. Tootsie Rolls, Life Savers, chips and a giant jar of pickles sat on top.
Earnestine Tarrant’s supplies and equipment are seen at her station in her hair salon on her final day working before her retirement.(Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)
Tarrant’s shop was not always this cozy and, in her words, was “beat up” when she first saw it in the late 1970s.
“I did not want this little bitty one room,” she said.
In the ’70s, she styled hair at a shop on South Malcolm X Boulevard, where Dade Middle School is now. After a few years, she was ready for her own space.
She had envisioned opening a salon with at least four styling chairs. So when her mother and a church member showed her Metropolitan Avenue location, Tarrant was not impressed.
“Take it, and you can always get a bigger place,” her mom said.
So, Tarrant signed a lease. But the place needed a lot of work. Before she started styling, the roof and floor were replaced and a friend installed shelves and a water heater room.
Earnestine Tarrant locks up after her final working day before retirement at her hair salon in South Dallas.(Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)
While the shop was being renovated, Tarrant worked part time at distribution centers and did housework for a family in North Dallas — she used to work as a caretaker for the children there. One in particular, Denni Blum, now 60, considers her a second mother.
Tarrant’s mother and her church friends alerted the neighborhood that a new beauty shop would be opening. The beautician bought ad space in Dallas Weekly for a month. By 1980, business was steady.
Soon, that South Dallas corner became the place to be. A burger joint occupied the other side of the duplex, and the cook would knock on the wall every day around noon to let Tarrant know when lunch was ready.
“When I came down here in ’79, I think I gained about 15 to 20 pounds from eating stew,” she said.
And with burgers at 75 cents, there was always a crowd at the little white house.
The restaurant closed in the late ’90s, but Earnestine’s stayed packed. Saturdays were the busiest: kids climbed over people’s legs and bounced from chair to chair, high off the candy from the snack table.
“You’ll have to come back another day,” she’d tell the customers who complained about the children.
The beauty shop was Tarrant’s second home, and she wanted other people to feel the same. Women who came in for a heat press and men who wanted jheri curls kicked their shoes off while they discussed the topic of the day. Many stayed at the shop well after their hair was done.
Tarrant never moved to a bigger spot, and, after a while, she didn’t want to. She had started out at a salon with about five other beauticians and had realized that more stylists usually means more gossip.
Earnestine Tarrant fist bumps with Sharon Curtis at her hair salon in South Dallas on her final day working before her retirement, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020. “I can’t hug you, so we have to fist bump,” Tarrant said with a laugh. (Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)
Her regulars knew not to bring up others’ personal business, and newcomers caught on quickly.
“I’ve found that if I don’t comment, the ones talking will eventually shut up,” Tarrant said with a laugh. “I don’t like talking about people.”
The room became a safe space for both the customers and the stylist. On Mondays, when the shop was closed, sometimes Tarrant would go just to sit by herself.
“[When] I’d be upset about something, I’d just come over here — watch TV, maybe do something to my hair,” she said. “This was my comfort zone.”
Earnestine Tarrant collects herself as she packs up after her final client, on her final working day before retirement, at her hair salon.(Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)
As time passed, the shop started to feel less like home. That’s when Tarrant decided to say goodbye.
She shut the shop’s doors in February, weeks before the pandemic caused most businesses to close. At her age, she had to take the coronavirus seriously.
When the state permitted salons to reopen in May, Tarrant didn’t allow more than four clients in the room at a time. Then she dropped the number to three. When she had older clients, she didn’t allow anyone else in the shop.
But Tarrant had been uncomfortable for almost five years before the pandemic started.
In the early 2000s, she saw a lot of crime in the neighborhood.
“There was a lot of drugs in this area,” Tarrant said. “A lot of things I didn’t want to see, but I’ve seen it.”
But she never felt afraid. She knew everyone, and everyone knew her — even the younger ones people called “troublemakers.” They kept her safe.
“Ms. Earnestine, you working late today?” They’d ask.
“Yeah,” she’d say.
“Well, we’re out here. We’ll stay here until you get your stuff in the car.”
Those kids have grown up and left. And the shop’s neighbors — all of whom Tarrant used to know — have either died or moved away.
Some days, she’d get to work as early as 5 a.m. If she was tired on slow days between clients, she’d take a nap. She stopped doing that around 2015.
“It’s so different now,” she said.
And the neighborhood isn’t the only thing that has changed. Tarrant sleeps with hand braces each night — a necessity after decades of doing hair. And her neck ached after long days of standing over the shampoo bowl. Add the swelling in her legs, and it became too much.
Tarrant’s doctor told her it’d only get worse.
Client Vera Harris reads the newspaper as she sits under a hair dryer at the beauty shop of Earnestine Tarrant in South Dallas on New Year’s Eve.(Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)
And her clients were concerned too, like Deitra Mosley, who had been coming to the shop twice a month since 2001.
Mosley joked that she’d call her in two weeks for her next appointment, but she’d rather see Tarrant sit down.
“I’m the one that told you to get out of here because I saw your leg,” Mosley said as Tarrant curled her hair last week.
“I’m going to be lonesome for a while,” Tarrant said, “but I know I’m not going home to just sit down.”
Lois Hightower, who has taken the bus from Pleasant Grove for over 10 years, is sure Tarrant will come back.
“You’re gonna get bored,” she said, sitting under a dryer in the corner last week before Tarrant closed her shop.
Tarrant still isn’t sure what she’ll do now, but she knows reopening the shop isn’t in the picture. She might take some classes to learn more about the Bible or visit senior homes and style hair there occasionally.
She has made up her mind about one thing: She’s visiting her friend in Richmond, Va., once the pandemic ends. And then they’re taking the bus to New York.
In a plastic grocery bag, Tarrant packed purple shampoo for Hightower’s silver hair, a new hot comb she bought, a regular styling comb and a jar of hair grease.
Then she carefully wrapped some gift paper around a glass. It read: “Journey Fulfilled, Ms. Earnestine. Happy Retirement 41 Yrs” in black cursive writing. Tarrant added it to the bag and handed it to Hightower before the longtime client left for the last time.
“I can’t do it like you do,” Hightower said.
“You’ll be all right, just use that pressing comb,” Tarrant said with tears in her eyes.
“I love you, you hear?”
Staff researcher Alyssa Fernandez contributed to this report.
Earnestine Tarrant waves goodbye to a client.(Smiley N. Pool / Staff Photographer)