Undercover detectives, brides, or lawyers. Cross-dressers, models, or newscasters. Chemotherapy patients or victims of alopecia (hair loss). Church-goers, vacation-takers, or someone who simply wants to surprise someone else.
Whatever their background, the people who walk into The Wig Palace want to look "real." What they can expect to receive is genuine, first class service, the kind that comes with a big old, German, North Dakota type of hug.
Vicki Arndt, the store's manager, is a people person who likes the smell of the ocean. She set her sights on moving to the west coast in the late 1960s and recalls how heavy the wigs were back then and how they were such a poor fit for the common person who didn't have a movie role. It didn't take long before she called home and told her mom, "California needs you!"
Following that phone call, Irene Farrey packed up and moved her North Dakota salon to northern California. Widowed with four children when Vicki was nine, Irene put herself through beauty school and eventually opened her own salon. After moving to the Bay Area, she opened six stores but scaled back to one on 159 East Fifth Avenue, a quiet street in San Mateo that affords customers privacy and enables the right type of company culture.
The culture that Irene, Vicki, and Barbara ("like-a-daughter-to-Irene") Nitschke embrace is one that doesn't listen for the sounds of a ringing cash register. A good sale is one that makes the customer feel good. "We're in the business of helping people," Vicki says. "We let the customer decide if the wig feels like 'you.'"
Vicki's inventory includes up-dos, ponytails, clip-on wiglets, braids, scaves, and turbans. The shop specializes in synthetic wigs which are cooler, easier to maintain, and, at 1.5 ounces, lighter than wigs made with human hair. Vicki, Irene, and Barbara help their customers learn how to launder the wigs, take them on and off, and even apply for insurance reimbursement. They'll do special orders if the client can't find the right one in the shop and the only advertising that's done is by word of mouth.
Customers range in age from 4 to 94. Half of the clientele are cancer patients and long ago, Vicki reached out to the medical community to offer support. Many of her customers are devastated to learn they're going to lose their hair and eyebrows. Sometimes, the news can seem worse than the cancer diagnosis itself. "When you look in the mirror," Vicki says, "you want to see the best reflection of yourself. When you lose your hair, it's a reminder of not being well."
Every customer is heard. And asked for a hug. When Vicki hugs a client who has cancer, she says, "I close my eyes and try to envision my healthy cells jumping into that person to help them fight. I want them to be well." She imagines her cells are playing Pac-Man and her good cells will eat up the bad ones.
The toughest part of Vicki's job is enjoying her wellness when she sees others who are struggling. There was the day a 4-year-old came in to try on wigs and had been given only four months to live. Although grateful to see her reach age 8, Vicki still remembers the moment the girl pulled on a wig, then turned to her father and asked, "Daddy, am I beautiful?"
The work can be heart-wrenching but Vicki feels lucky to be in an environment that gives her a daily reminder of what is truly important. "If you don't appreciate the little things," she says, "you'll blindly go through life."
What brings Vicki happiness is knowing she's helping people feel good and making a positive difference in their lives. Some customers stop by weekly, long after any purchase has occurred, just to share a cup of coffee. And a hug.
I got one and believe me, it felt good.