NEW YORK — Sara Gilmore has swapped out her hairbrush for a paintbrush.
The hair salon owner and watercolor hobbyist has found an unexpected audience for her paintings of flowers and Brooklyn brownstones. Since shuttering her Sara June salon last month, she and her employees have raised thousands of dollars by auctioning homemade pieces on the business's Instagram.
"I've never showed anyone my art, ever," Gilmore said. "To pivot my business into an art sale business is really funny but great. I'm glad that I've had at least that skill set that I could make a little bit of income."
The barbershops and salons that provide New Yorkers with cuts, colors, manicures and more are scrambling to ensure their small businesses can survive even after the state's stay-at-home order is lifted. Generous customers are supplementing incomes for stylists relying on unemployment benefits, while barbers see the ugly results of home haircuts and trust that demand will return as soon as social distancing measures are lifted.
"It looks easier than it is, I guess," joked John Vezza, owner of Astor Place Hairstylists in Manhattan. "Always use a good surgeon and a good barber."
First, those shops must survive the shutdown. Some owners are having difficulty procuring federal loans to help pay employees, and many worry about operating well below capacity if they have to reopen under distancing restrictions.
"I think everyone is concerned about how it's going to be when we get back," Gilmore said.
Gilmore furloughed her entire 10-person staff in March and instructed them to apply for unemployment benefits. The government checks have helped, but they've also received significant financial support from customers.
The salon has raised $3,500 for employees through its online art sale, and other clients have sent donations directly to stylists. Gilmore is also selling do-it-yourself color kits, earning about $5,000 that has made a dent in rent payments and other overhead.
"People get very attached to their hairstylists, and we as hairstylists get very attached to our clients," Gilmore said. "I think the community that builds up around the service of feeling good about yourself is a really strong community."
Some salon owners have been luckier than others.
Alexander Delacqua, who operates Delacqua Salon & Medi Spa in Brooklyn, said his landlords have been "angels." He has been in the same place for 18 years, and the building's owner is offering flexibility on lease payments.
That's allowing Delacqua to divert resources to his 35 employees.
"I want to take care of them," he said. "They deserve this, and I don't want to lose them."
Retail made up about 20% of Delacqua's business prior to the pandemic, and he has been able to maintain some sales via the company's website. Like Gilmore, he is preparing DIY root color kits, too.
He was also among the first-round applicants to be approved for a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program, although he has yet to receive his money.
Vezza didn't even get that far his first time applying. The Astor Place Hairstylists owner said he has been "voraciously" trying to get a loan through the federal program but has found it to be "virtually impossible."
"The banking system really, really dropped the ball getting money to small guys like me," he said.
Vezza expects he can stay afloat another two months without reopening, but not much longer. Even when stay-at-home orders are lifted, there will be difficulties.
Delacqua and Vezza have a rare advantage among NYC shops — space. Delacqua has three floors, and Astor Place Hairstylists has 40 haircutting stations.
Gilmore's situation is more typical. Her landlord has not been flexible, and social distancing in her small shop would require operating significantly below capacity.
She sees little to gain from the paycheck protection loans as they are structured. In order to qualify for loan forgiveness, she would have to rehire her full staff by June 30 and use 75% of the loan directly on payroll.
"They're putting the pressure on small business owners to bring their employees back on before we're even open again," she said. "And then potentially having to lay them off if we don't open in time or the money runs out."
Gilmore needs capital for costs like rent, paying off debt and exploring alternative revenue sources for the short and medium term, she said.
With that, she could bring her employees back when the business is ready. The paycheck loans, with all their restrictions, aren't going to help her achieve her ultimate goal — keeping her stylists employed long term.
With those concerns in mind, Gilmore and other female entrepreneurs in Brooklyn launched We Built This NYC last week. The coalition of business owners is pushing for rent relief, lease negotiations and better representation.
"We're scrappy," Gilmore said. "We've built a business in an expensive city, and we are in it to survive."