It had been hours since the last customer left. As Katie Lannigan swept the loose hair from the floor, got the bills together and locked the doors behind her, she remained unsure of what the future would hold for her small hair salon. But when New York State went into lockdown the next day in March of last year, it didn’t take long for Lannigan, and other small business owners, to feel the growing burden of their shallow savings.
“Small business was struggling before Covid came,” said Lannigan, 60, the owner of Katie & Co. salon in Hicksville. “You can only go so deep into your own pocket until you say, hey, this isn’t working for me anymore.”
Uncertainty about the future was familiar to Lannigan who had worked decades of 12-hour workdays and spent many Saturday nights at her kitchen table sorting through unpaid bills.
And so the prospect of the pandemic becoming a ticket out of the unpredictable and grueling small business world excited her. In between house calls during April and May while her salon was temporarily closed, Lannigan visited one-person studios and local salons where she could rent a chair. She weighed various options for the future during her regular trips along the Long Island Expressway to clients’ homes.
Survival had become second nature to Lannigan over the years, and she knew that Katie & Co. wasn’t the way to pay the bills anymore.
Growing up in Hicksville, Long Island, she was the ninth of 11 children raised in a household that was barely getting by. Some days her mother was too overwhelmed to correctly match names to faces. And in no time, Lannigan learned that the only way to get anywhere in the world was to earn it.
By 12 years old she was working as a Newsday papergirl (their first, she said), spending early mornings before school riding her green bike purposefully from house to house, throwing papers onto the front lawns of sleepy homeowners in time for their morning cup of coffee.
“I was taking care of myself way back when,” she said. “And I think that was really the start of my entrepreneurial mind.”
But her pursuit of owning a small business wasn’t without struggles. Following cosmetology school, she worked in salons across the island to make ends meet. In 1988, Lannigan decided to set out on her own, but her rent applications were rejected by landlords who refused to rent their storefronts to women. When she finally opened her first salon later that year, long workdays became the new normal. And when she had her sons Liam and Max a few years later, babysitters became a mainstay. As she simultaneously grew her business and her family, concerns about bills and late fees consumed the little free time she had.
Yet, in spite of it all, she persevered.
Over the 32 years at Katie & Co., Lannigan served countless clients and employed dozens of workers. At the end of the salon’s run, she couldn’t forget about the employees who felt like family to her. So, when she decided to rent a chair at the Nisha John Salon in Hicksville and close Katie & Co., she made a deal with the owner, Nisha John, to bring some of them along.
“I said, ‘Thank you, God, and thank you, Katie,’ ” said Reyna Mejia, who doesn’t believe she’d be working right now if Lannigan hadn’t offered her a spot at the new shop. “I’m so grateful for what she did.”
Many of Lannigan’s customers were equally loyal, having stayed with her since she opened her first salon. And some, like Bob and Elaine Goldsmith, even offered to help her keep the business open.
The Goldsmiths have been driving together from their home in Jericho, Long Island, to Lannigan’s salon in Hicksville every few weeks for their haircuts since 1988. When their children were young, they buckled them into the car and brought them, too. And so, when Lannigan announced the salon would be closing last June, Bob, once a small business owner himself, decided to extend a hand. New to the salon industry, he spent time researching the logistics. He did the math. He knew it would take $150,000, every penny of which he was prepared to invest in Katie & Co.
“If you find somebody that’s down, who you see really cares about what they’re doing, and you can help them in some way, it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “We just think that she’s a really special person.”
Although Lannigan turned him down, the offer transcended dollars and cents. It showed her how much Katie & Co. really meant to her clients. The mid-haircut conversations weren’t hollow, they were the real foundation of strong relationships she’d made a habit of preserving over the years. The miles she spent driving to her clients for at-home appointments during the pandemic weren’t wasted. They were yet another example of Katie’s dedication. The little moments transformed what she always thought was solely a business into a destination for a deeper emotional experience for her customers.
“Your client is your number one person,” she said. “If you don’t have that client sitting in your chair you don’t have anything.”
The Goldsmiths remained loyal and followed Lannigan to the new salon without question, as did many of her other clients. But when they walked into Nisha John Salon, the environment was entirely different. It was bigger, louder and more crowded than Katie & Co. ever was. Lannigan, too, faced the rude awakening of working in a space that she didn’t have control over for the first time in decades. She was no longer in charge of creating and maintaining the salon’s atmosphere and had to adapt to an environment that did not reflect her own aesthetics.
No break room. Boxes of merchandise piled on the floor. A smaller workstation.
Such things would have been dealbreakers at Lannigan’s salon. Now she was bringing her clients into a world that she wasn’t comfortable in herself. But after a few months, she learned to adapt, to look at things differently, to become comfortable knowing she couldn’t make all of the decisions anymore.
Slowly, she learned to embrace what she’d been missing for the past 34 years— a freedom from responsibility.
“I go home now and I don’t think of my business,” she said. “I was always happy with what I was doing, but I’m even happier now because I go home and don’t have to worry about how I’m going to keep the lights on this month.”
This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.