By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
“We’ve had a lot of fun – I believe it’s important to have a lot of fun, and laugh.”
That philosophy has propelled Sue Lindblom through almost 44 years of owning and operating the trailblazing West Seattle salon Illusions Hair Design (5619 California SW; longtime WSB sponsor). So much fun, she couldn’t bear to retire until now. Illusions has just announced it’s closing permanently at the end of May. (Read her full emailed announcement here.)
“I thought I’d retire at 65, or 67, or 68 … here I am, almost 74. But those numbers are just numbers.” This isn’t just her decision, her retirement. The entire Illusions team, with a collective century and a half at the salon, decided to call it a day, all planning to leave the hairstyling business. “It was just time – seemed like the right time for all of us.”
Lindblom has operated Illusions differently from most other salons. No tipping, for one. But that’s just part of it.
She was 30 when she and then-business partner Linda Rhoton opened Illusions Hair Design on June 1, 1978, ten years after she started in the business. She became sole owner when Rhoton had to retire early. “I didn’t think I’d be doing it this long.” A previous employer’s innovations inspired her. “I was managing that salon and started to think I could run one.” But it took a decade or so before she started “different ways of doing things.”
She wanted to offer benefits – she was a single mom, and acutely aware of the need for insurance, vacation, holidays. Instead of stylists renting chairs and operating as sole proprietors under a collective roof, everybody at Illusions worked as a team. No fighting over clients – they wanted them to be comfortable seeing anyone on the team. The cohesion carried over to their paychecks. “If we made our goals in a four-week period, everybody got a bonus.” Financial information was shared too: “They knew exactly what we were spending on everything – how much we were spending on colors, how much we were giving to charity … a consulting firm helped us get started on that. We slowly started adopting all these different things.”
And there was the big change. “When we quit tipping [more than 30 years ago], the stylists were more excited than the customers. The prevailing attitude was, “I do the best I can on everybody all the time.” The atmosphere was more relaxed than competitive. And, again, fun. “If your employees are happy, they’re going to make the customers happy.” That made Lindblom happy: “It always made me feel good that I was taking care of my team. I care about all of them.” She shared that advice in presentations to student stylists: “I’d tell people I go to salons and sit there for a while and get a feel for the atmosphere. You spend most of your waking hours at work, it has to be a place you feel good about.” Education was a staff activity too – not just new hair techniques, but also communication techniques.
That’s kept some customers coming back year after year after year – even some from her pre-Illusions salon, Beauty and the Beast. They also have second- and third-generation clients: “They’ve come since they were little kids – now we do them or their kids.”
Something else that’s carried through the decades, along with operating practices and clients: Community giving. For many years, Illusions hosted “Have a Heart Day,” where stylists donated their time so that all proceeds from reduced-price haircuts could benefit nonprofits.
(Photo from 2010 Have a Heart Day)
An early beneficiary was the West Seattle Helpline (now part of the WS Food Bank). “It was so much fun that we asked about school supplies for kids,” and that’s how Pencil Me In For Kids was born: Helpline connected them to family-support workers who helped them find out what kids most needed, not just “a backpack full of stuff.” Lindblom joined the Rotary Club of West Seattle after the turn of the millennium, and Pencil Me In For Kids is now under the Rotary’s umbrella. “We work with public elementaries,” as well as in partnership with Staples at Westwood Village, for price breaks and donated items. “It’s been very rewarding … I feel very good about that.”
Lindblom also feels good about being able to hang on through the pandemic. It was her birthday, March 16th, 2020, when they had to close, by government order, for a few months. “I had just taken out a home-improvement loan, so I was able to cover payroll … PPP loans helped us too.” She wants to be clear that the pandemic is not the reason they’re closing – everyone is just ready to move on to something else. “If we were at a point where we had younger stylists, there might be someone who would take it on.” Instead, “Illusions is fading away into the sunset.” Many memories linger – holiday buffets for clients, Christmas dinners for the staff, even a trip to the ocean. And everyone going to accept the Mayor’s Small Business Award that Illusions won in 1997. Lindblom also was honored with the West Seattle Grand Parade‘s coveted Orville Rummel Trophy for Outstanding Service to the Community. Illusions made repeat appearances in the parade – you might remember the distinctive VW Bug:
(WSB photo from 2007 West Seattle Grand Parade)
Also notable: Illusions “has been a family thing.” Her daughter Heather has worked at the salon for more than half her life. Other relatives have worked there. Her brother remodeled the salon – which brings up something else unusual Lindblom did: She bought the building long ago to ensure the salon would be in control of its own destiny and not subject to a landlord’s change in plans. She recently sold it; if the new owners choose to rent the space to a salon, “it will NOT be Illusions.” (In the meantime, anyone interested in leasing the space can leave a message for her at Illusions, 206-938-3675.)
Now some logistics: May 26th will be the last day for Illusions. As it is winding down, the salon is no longer accepting new clients. But, as noted in the announcement:
-Current clients who have received services within the past 3 years can schedule appointments through April, and can request appointments for the month of May AFTER MARCH 14TH.
So what are Lindblom’s plans once Illusions is closed? Maybe some traveling, though there’s plenty to keep her busy at home – Lindblom laughs that she has “a little dog who takes up a lot of time.” She’s also still busy with the Rotary. “So many things to be passionate about in West Seattle.”
And that’s how she’s been about her business, employees, and customers – for 44 years.