Story and Photos By Gary Baribeault
Downtown Rochester is starting to experience a revival of sorts. The buildings may look the same, but behind the brick façades and weathered store fronts a heart is starting to beat again and that pulse, it’s generating a warm glow, one that would remind the city’s older residents of the its heyday.
Part of that new breath of fresh air can be found on Hanson Street. The little one-way stretch just off the town square that once was home to Colby’s Old Place has several new establishments that are thriving, including a small inconspicuous – blink and you’ll miss it — hair salon near the corner of Columbus Avenue.
Monroe Hair Studio’s atmosphere evokes the same feeling as the name suggests. With a tin ceiling and lighting reminiscent of days gone by, that’s about where the old ends and the new begins. Although the young proprietor describes herself as a very old soul, Amber Smith is anything but that when it comes to her enthusiasm and zeal for what she does. This lifelong Rochester girl didn’t always see herself as a hair stylist. For that story you’ll need to drift back to her days of roaming the halls at Spaulding High.
“Marine Biology” she said. “Either that or something in the medical field”.
Growing up those were the initial dreams of this young entrepreneur, who confessed quite quickly that the salon and her life now, that was a last-minute solution to a very scary reality.
“I was enrolled in Spaulding’s Healthcare occupational program” she shared. It was a real-life experience at Frisbie Memorial Hospital’s Radiology Department her second year that had Smith shifting gears. Her eyes widened a bit as she continued to elaborate. “There was a bad accident and two kids my own age came in, it was just like what you’d see on one of those ER shows.”
That huge dose of reality convinced her right then and there she needed to change those plans — and quick. With 6 months left in her Senior year as Amber puts it, “I lost my way for a hot minute there.”
Then, from what seemed like an unlikely source, her then-boyfriend said, “why not hair?”
“It really wasn’t much of stretch,” she said. “I’d been doing my girlfriends’ hair for years. Every time there was a big event, prom or special occasions, they’d always come to me, and I was good at it.”
So right after graduation, a somewhat shy teen decided to head off to Empire Beauty School.
Admittedly, her start there was tough. She needed to overcome that shy and unassuming attitude. But after a couple of initial hiccups, she seemed to find her inner confidence and from there it was a different story. The shyest student in the class quickly rose to the top in her group. A year later she had a certificate, and something else less tangible: an inner strength that had always existed just below the surface. In conversation with her, the passion she has for her industry became increasingly evident. But her initial vision of her career never included a salon of her own.
As Smith tells it, the next few years were a journey that included gaining invaluable experience as well as an obvious rapport with both her clients and co-workers. She left her initial job at Hair Excitement to cut hair in Florida for a while. It was in that warm backdrop that she continued to excel at her craft, but there were still a few unforeseen obstacles ahead.
She left the industry for a while when she became a single parent. She did a little soul searching, and after eight months of training to be a Medical Sonographer, it was a call from her former employer that pulled her back into the hair styling industry. That and a strong feeling that perhaps she’d made a mistake.
“Hair Excitement really wanted me back,” said Amber. So, with the somewhat reluctant support of her father — her voice of reason — she came back to the industry. In no time she was feeling at home once again and very comfortable in her own skin, but it would still take just a bit longer before she would get that itch to venture out on her own. During this time, both her decision to return and her confidence were solidified when she became the number three producer in the entire company, and with that, the seeds for Monroe Hair Studio were firmly planted.
She left Hair Excitement for the second time and spent the next six years renting space in another salon as a sole proprietor, ordering product, doing her own taxes, and slowly the normal butterflies associated with owning her own business were gone.
“Once I was exposed to those things, it didn’t seem as scary to think about my own place,” she said. Now that the seed was growing, the only real mystery left was where to go and what to call her salon.
“I needed something unique, I couldn’t have just any old name,” said Smith. “I needed to stand out.” After having her initial business name rejected by the state, it was during a brainstorming session with her middle child that she would strike gold.
“We were driving home one day, and I ask Jamison what I should call my salon,” she recalled. Like any child, her first reaction was the simplest one, she started to read off street signs as they drove by them.
At some point during the conversation, Amber happened to glance at a magazine sitting on the van’s dashboard given to her by a friend, and there it was, a picture of Marilyn Monroe. That was it.
“I’d always had a fascination with Marilyn. Not her movies, more the documentaries,” Smith said. “From a very young age I’d been attracted to old school beauty. I always want to live in that time period, with that kind of yesteryear style and grace.
“It was all just very appealing to me and made sense,” she added. “It just felt right.”
She ran the potential name past her closest friends and got the reassurance she needed. No this wasn’t too cheesy, wasn’t lame or the wrong identity for her new shop, this one was a home run.
“That is so you,” was the reaction she got from her peers. And when the right venue came into view to bring Monroe to life, she didn’t hesitate.
“It all just fell into place,” as she put it, and with the downtown starting to turn a corner her path was now clear. “I grew up here, I love this town, so it was a no brainer.”
Armed with her renewed confidence and a space to channel that energy, she’s never looked back.
She talked passionately about the business’s growth, with clients finding her by word of mouth. News will travel fast when a new spot with an old school flare hits town. Along with the atmosphere she’s created around her shop, this thirty-something has gathered some very valuable perspective over the last few years as well.
Amber insists that trust and personal bonds are the key to everything. “Some of my clients tell me I’m their longest relationship, she said with a bit of a laugh.
She believes that this is the force that helps drive you forward and creates longevity. She believes in complete honesty as well, especially when it comes to cut and style. “I have to be honest,” she confessed, “If my clients hair type doesn’t fit the style they want, I’ll tell them. I’m not going to lead them in the wrong direction, because that never works out.”
Ultimately, Amber says she’d rather have them leave and go to another salon than walk out of hers with the wrong look. “Reputation and honesty are important to me and I’ll never betray those two things for anyone ever”.
Her personal approach is just as straightforward, “Whatever you do in life, be the best at it.” With that spirit, her response to competing businesses in town, “I have no competition. They do what they do and I do what I do, my increasing list of clientele reaffirms that,” she said confidently.
Her clients aren’t the only ones who noticed Smith’s talent and ease with people. Her kids are among her biggest fans.
“Jamison once asked me if I was a celebrity,” she said. “I said ‘why do you say that?’” Her daughter’s reply, “because everybody knows you.”
All of that is not by accident.
In her limited spare time, this mother of three manages to be a part of the Woman Only Entrepreneurs of Rochester, the Rochester Social Club and blocks off a section of time each month to cut hair for the town’s city council; all to stay in touch with that growing urban pulse.
To help advance her vision for Monroe Hair Studio, Amber’s screening other stylist to add to her staff. The criteria for those positions include a shared inner drive and a vision to be the best. But her aspirations don’t end there.
“I’d like to add a second studio when the opportunity presents itself,” she said, “but that takes time.”
Once she’s reached that goal, this driven young lady has her sights set on the future role of educator.
“I can see myself running Monroe remotely while working for a top distributor in the industry teaching. I think I can offer a lot in the way of development and guidance for other young entrepreneurs, it’s something I would love to do”, and by the look in her eye, there’s little reason to doubt she’ll do just that.
She’s on Facebook and has a website, but until she can add other self-driven stylists like herself, she keeps advertising secondary to everything else. For now, her satisfaction comes from knowing she’s accomplished everything to this point on her own, her way, in the same unique style of the icon who served as the inspiration for her salon. It’s that atmosphere and Amber’s philosophy which provides an experience that speaks for itself.
There’s no timeline for her next steps, but if you consider her drive to get it done now, get better now, be the best business woman, hair stylist and teacher she can be now, “the rest,” she says, “will take care of itself.”
The salon does it all and then some, so before your next night out, or if you’re in search of a change, check out Monroe Hair Studio. This young lady with an old soul will make you a believer from the get go.
Monroe Hair Studio / TheMonroeHairStudio.com / 59 Hanson Street, Rochester NH