Nail salons are beauty service establishments that offer nail care services such as manicures and pedicures, services once relegated to beauty salons and some barbershops. Today, nail salons also offer hand, foot, and back massages. Some nail salons provide skin care and/or waxing services, and some nail techs specialize in elaborate variations of nail art. According to Nail Trade Magazine, there are approximately 58,350 nail salons (2008) in the United States, doing some $6.4 billion in business each year; most of these are Korean or Vietnamese owner operated. Thanks to immigrant women’s entrepreneurship, in particular, manicures, once done by women themselves in the privacy of their own home or a luxury item carried out at full-service hair salons, have become something that is paid for in nail salons.
Formation of a Niche
On the East Coast, New York City is the place where nail salons first appeared as a separate nail care establishment. In the late 1970s and early ’80s Korean women who were employed as either hairdressers or manicurists in Manhattan hair salons took considerable initiative to start their own businesses and paved the way for other Korean women to enter the workforce. At the time, there were no specialty nail salons, and manicures were available only in upscale, full-service beauty salons, affordable only to an elite group of people, namely upper and upper-middle-class white women. Innovative Korean manicurists caught on to this point and took this luxury service out of the beauty salons; they started creating the nail salon niche within the expanding sector of beauty industry there. The number of Korean-owned nail salons increased dramatically during the 1980s, and the price for a manicure in New York City fell to such extent that low-income women could afford to have the service.
Korean nail salons now form up to 90 percent of nail salons in New York City. The Korean-American Nail Salon Association estimated that 5,000 nail salons were run by Koreans in New York City and surrounding suburbs in 2006. Since the Korean nail salons began to appear in Manhattan in late 1970s, they have proliferated in such remarkable numbers that they have evolved into one of the signature icons of the city, an easily recognizable symbol on nearly every city block. The term nail salon in NYC and its neighboring suburbs evokes images of a specifically Korean establishment.
On the West Coast and in Texas, Vietnamese transformed the nail salon industry in similar ways. Since the mid 1970s and the fall of Saigon, Vietnamese immigrants began looking for an entrepreneurial niche and, in cities like Los Angeles, moved from offering cut-rate prices in salons to establishing their own businesses. In the 1970s an L.A. manicure may have cost as much as $60, and now one can get the same service for sometimes less than $20. In places like California, Vietnamese immigrants brought manicures to the masses and established the nail salon as a distinct beauty institution. Today, in California, approximately 80 percent of nail techs are Vietnamese and, nationally, 43 percent of nail salons are Vietnamese owned and operated. Their clientele, however, remains quite diverse. Due to mass production manicures, women from a broad range of social classes and occupations and across various ethnic and racial lines can easily afford to get their nails done. Although manicurist is not a word that translates directly into Vietnamese, Vietnamese manicurists found an ethnic niche similar to that of Indian-owned hotels and Cambodian doughnut shops.
As structural conditions necessary for the emergence and growth of nail salons in NYC and L.A. developed, the socioeconomic order of the global city, characterized by its development of service industries in the wake of the erosion of the urban manufacturing base, should be noted. This unique enterprise could not be successful without a steady supply of both nail workers who dedicated themselves to this type of body-related work and to their clients with the disposable income necessary to purchase the services offered by nail salons within the expanding sector of the beauty industry.
Another crucial factor of a successful ethnic business is the domination of one particular industry through vertical integration, which is defined as an interdependence among co-ethnic producers, suppliers, and retailers. Immigrant clustering in the nail salon niche has resulted in strong vertical integration in lines of nail-related businesses, namely the interdependence among co-ethnic nail salons, nail material suppliers, and nail training schools. As the number of nail salons rapidly increased, some immigrants with money thrust themselves into the nail supply business and nail schools. Ethnic clustering like this leads to advantages such as the ability to form business associations and negotiate with manufacturers to receive cheaper wholesale prices.
Just as immigrant couples first found their economic niche in running vegetable stands or fish markets, women and increasingly entrepreneurs now find their niche in nail salons. This requires a relatively small initial investment, a simple command of English, a readily available supply of labor, and few professional skills. Koreans and Vietnamese can rent small spaces and need only make a few purchases to open a nail salon. Personal incentives include opportunities to socialize with coworkers and customers, to increase English skills, and to work in a beauty-related artistic field.
The economic character of nail salons rests on higher profit margins coming from providing elaborate service for each customer. This is not the case with most immigrant-owned shops, which are characterized by low profit margins, high customer turnover, fleeting encounters, and general anonymity. Because a nail shop is a service enterprise, the ability to forge relationships with customers is an important component of success. Thus, service performances involving physical contact and face-to-face encounters with other racial groups are the conditions that shape nail shop culture.
This nail shop culture is highlighted by attitudes and feelings of social distance between manicurists and customers in struggles over language, tips, and competing as well as supporting relations among employees. It reveals conflict-laden relationships and a gulf between customers and nail women, as well as between American and Korean or Vietnamese cultures. Korean manicurists constantly straddle these deep conflicting divisions. In performing nail services, immigrant manicurists not only attend to the physical comfort and aesthetics of the customers’ appearance, but also engage in complex relations with customers through which they are constantly challenging, accommodating, and/or reinforcing the status quo and hierarchical structure of the dominant society.
The nail salon is often more than just a place of business. For customers, it is a social space where they can spend time, relax, and socialize with the business owners, employees, and fellow customers. Because customers tend to assume that Korean and Vietnamese manicurists have a poor grasp of the English language, they do not expect to engage in conversations with their manicurists. Nail salons are social spaces where customers talk to one another, shoulder-to-shoulder at the manicure and drying table.
People generally believe that having one’s nails done is harmful to healthy nails because of the use of harsh chemicals and cuticle removers. Manicurists often wear masks to protect themselves from the dust of nail buffing powder and other chemicals. This is especially the case among the manicurists who work in predominantly low-income African American neighborhood salons, where strong chemicals are frequently needed to achieve the intricate nail designs their customers request.
Recent scientific studies show that nontuberculous mycobacterial infections have been found to cause severe skin and soft-tissue infections in association with nail salon whirlpool footbaths. The Department of Health Services expects that rapidly growing mycobacterial infections related to pedicures may continue to occur in a sporadic fashion, and asks clinicians to inquire about recent pedicures in a patient with recurrent infections of furunculosis and the need for longterm polymicrobial therapy.
Interactions With Customers
Perhaps better known than the health concerns are the interactions between American customers and immigrant nail techs. The degree to which relationships are constructed through conversation between the manicurist and her customer varies with the location of the nail salon, which determines the race, ethnicity, and age of its main clientele. In upscale salons in Manhattan’s commercial districts, where the clientele is predominantly white and middle or upper-middle class, conversation with customers is discouraged by the salon owner for the sake of speed and efficiency of service. Salons located in suburban spaces generally allow for more opportunity for conversation between manicurist and customer. The fact that many of the clients in these salons tend to be older and homemakers rather than career women is also a factor that is more conducive to conversations between client and worker. Such variations in levels of active conversation are the result of service expectations by both the customer and the worker according to race, class, and the neighborhood in which the salon is situated.
Customers’ race and class are intertwined and become important factors in determining interactions with and perceptions of American women and American life for Asian manicurists. The manicurists’ interactions with customers are at times characterized by tension over matters of the use of the native Korean or Vietnamese language. Some nail salons hang television monitors to distract the customer and further mitigate social interactions with nail workers. Yet, in some local shops, there is enough leeway in the emotional and physical demands of their work to allow for workers to get to know their American clientele, at least in terms of holidays and food recipes. The relative older age and free time of some contribute to a more relaxed atmosphere in the salon.
Ultimately, the nail salon is a common space where two different bodies, the manicuring and the manicured, come in physical contact and through which both are challenged, accommodated, negotiated, and acculturated. With their American salon names, immigrant manicurists are drawn into a commodified body industry, performing previously unimaginable work that involves encounters with unfamiliar racial and ethnic groups. Through daily service interactions, immigrant service providers construct and/or transform not only their own identity, learning where their place is in this society and culture, but also the meaning of black and white within the racial hierarchy of the United States. They create a space where it is not unusual to find, for example, a Vietnamese nail tech meticulously painting a black power fist salute on her clientele’s fingernails. Both social interactions and touch reaffirm and redefine the nature of service work along with contemporary trends in the beauty industry.