For almost 40 years, business was family matter at Fort Worth beauty salon

FORT WORTH -- Dela Greene sat, as she always does, in the chair nearest the front window.

Her white hair, fine as spun glass, had been shampooed, rolled onto curlers, dried beneath a vintage dome dryer and expertly combed into a smooth coiffure, the ends turning gently inward.

"A bubble," hairdresser Rachel Salinas called the style.

"It is not. It's a page boy," Greene said. "Or that's what they called it when I was 18 years old."

By whatever name, the hairdo pleased the client, which pleased her favorite stylist.

As they routinely do at the end of their hour together, Greene and Salinas smiled into a framed mirror and began playfully crooning the lilting lyrics that Maria sang in Westside Story as she described her reaction to the miracle of love.

"I feel pret-ty ... oh so pretty..."

A shampoo and set cost $12 at Carmen's Beauty Salon.

The laughter, the camaraderie, the thoughtful acts of kindness are free -- gifts treasured by longtime customers of the small south Fort Worth salon that will close Saturday after almost 40 years.

The four sisters

Carmen Cisneros opened her business in 1971.

The sprightly woman, who stood 4-foot-5, worked tirelessly as a stylist and manicurist into her 90s. She died three years ago at 96.

Evelyn Masella, 71, inherited her mother's smile and work ethic. But age and serious health issues have taken a toll on the shop owner's employees, whom she regards and treats as family -- hermanas -- her three sisters.

Rosalie Rodriquez began working at the shop in 1972, Felipa Hernandez and Salinas a year later.

Those courteous, caring women are grandmothers now.

"I'm just tired," Masella said. "We're all tired."

While faithful customers understand why their beauty parlor is closing, they share a sense of loss and disappointment.

At Carmen's they are welcomed, pampered and always treated with respect.

Visits are pleasant and sociable, even spirit-lifting.

"I always leave with a smile on my face," Greene said. "And a song in my heart."

Now some feel fretfully displaced.

"What will we do?" Lelia Allen, 86, asked Mildred Whited, a church friend. "Where will we go?"

Allen started going to Carmen's 35 years ago.

Wanda Mullins was Rachel Salinas' first customer. She has been getting a shampoo and set from the operator every week since. Mullins' voice cracked with emotion as she spoke about the history between them. In 1992 the woman, who now lives in Cleburne, learned that she had breast cancer and endured weeks of debilitating chemotherapy.

Salinas drove to Mullins' home and worked magic on her friend's thinning hair.

She took the client out to eat.

"Wanda, things will be OK," Salinas said.

"Rachel has always been there for me," Mullins said. "They all have -- for all of us."

Enduring relationships

The shop, at 3645 Ryan Ave., is a nondescript beige brick structure in a residential neighborhood.

Five swivel chairs arranged in a row are lit by banks of florescent lights attached to the original ceiling, made of painted pressed tin.

Family photos, crucifixes and mementos adorn each operator's station.

The daytime soap opera As the World Turns flickers on a TV.

The distinct odor of permanent wave solution fills the air.

"I don't know why they call it a permanent," Salinas said. "It only lasts three months."

What endures, for employees and customers alike, are the memories of good times, the holiday celebrations, the milestones, life-changing events -- birthdays and weddings, the births of their children and their children's children.

Years ago, four of the stylists were pregnant at the same time.

Salinas answered the shop's ringing phone.

"Carmen's Ma- tern-it-y Ward!" she trilled in a happy, musical voice.

Over time some customers have slowed in step and become less physically independent.

The stylists offer clients who live nearby, but no longer drive, rides to and from the shop.

When clients have fallen ill -- one even fainted while getting a perm -- the hairdressers have telephoned relatives or summoned an ambulance.

Working for prayers

The customers are wide ranging in age and background. They include several nuns, Sisters of St. Mary of Namur. The aging women, who subsist primarily on meager retirement funds, live in the area at Our Lady of Victory Center.

The shop offers its services to Sister Francesca and others at no cost.

"They pray for us," Salinas said. "That's all we want -- their prayers."

Recently, the stylist learned that one of her favorite clients had died.

At the funeral home, Salinas stood alone with her thoughts in the presence of the departed.

"It was hard, very hard," she said.

But she wanted to pay her respects and to honor the request in the woman's will. Salinas happily greeted Verna as she always had and then, chatting away, went to work, dutifully -- tenderly -- styling her dear friend's hair.

David Casstevens,