Volume 16 • Issue 39 | February 27 - March 4, 2004



Cutting through hair and problems at salon

Downtown Express photo by Elisabeth Robert

Lisa Cancilla, co-owner of Je Litique in Southbridge Towers.

By Angela Benfield

To her customers, Lisa Cancilla, co-owner of “Je Litique,” a beauty salon located in Southbridge Towers, is more than just a hairdresser. The single mother of two teenagers, Cancilla, 44, is also a confidante, amateur psychologist, and sharp businesswoman who has been cutting hair in Lower Manhattan for more than a quarter century.

“She’s a friend, not just a haircutter. I can tell her anything I could tell a therapist,” says Peggy Romano, a client of 10 years. The two have discussed issues such as health, kids and even sex. “It’s a very comfortable chair.”

Without even meeting someone, Lisa can tell something about them.

“People that have really long hair are usually afraid of a big change. People with short hair are much more daring and willing to take chances,” she said. Cancilla feels that keeping the same hairstyle for 25 years is a big mistake, but she always cuts hair just the way the client asks.

“She takes care of me the way I want to be. I can just wash and comb my hair and it’s the way I like it,” said Helen, a Southbridge resident.

The close relationship that she typically develops with clients made 9/11 that much more devastating. Several clients died.

In the aftermath she had a serious problem, as well. Business was way off. Many of her customers that worked in the World Trade Center moved out of the area.

“I thought we were going to have to throw in the towel,” she said. The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave them some assistance, but it was impossible to get sufficient support. Cancilla and her partner, Jeannine Martinelli, found the bureaucracy and requirements involved in receiving a government grant insurmountable.

Things have not improved since then, either.

“Business has slowed down a little bit every year,” said Cancilla.

But the two women are determined to keep the salon open and are even expanding. In addition to haircutting, coloring and waxing, they will soon offer a spa for facials and massages. Cancilla is also currently attending a class to learn how to apply ‘permanent’ make up, (eyebrow and lip liner that is tattooed on).

Cancilla attributes much of her determination to her upbringing.

“We were taught that if you want something, you have to go out and get it,” she said.

Cancilla’s father worked three jobs, while she was growing up in Brooklyn: as a long shoreman, construction worker and architectural estimator for the city. Her mother worked as a secretary while raising three girls. Cancilla passes along their principles to her own children. Her son Philip, 14, works hard and does well in his high school classes, she said, and her daughter Cristina, 19, juggles three part-time jobs while attending Baruch College.

Her parents also prepared her well for what she sees as the challenges facing women business owners.

For instance, some service contractors have attempted to take advantage of her.

“They take one look at me and think they can overcharge,” Cancilla said of some repairmen she’s encountered. One time when the air conditioner broke a serviceman arrived to fix it, but gave her an estimate triple from the one he gave her on the phone, she said. She handled it by calling three other places for estimates in his presence. He reluctantly relented by giving her the original price.

Despite 9/11 and the difficulties that have ensued, working in Lower Manhattan continues to appeal to Cancilla. It always has.

In 1979, at 18, she began working at a salon on Pearl St. At that young age, she’d already received her training – she attended beauty school at night while in high school. With Wall St. booming in the early ‘80s, clients were primarily made up of businessmen who would tip well and have their hair cut during working hours. That meant a good salary and weekends and evenings off.

She went on to build a career at that salon, but by the late ‘90s, Cancilla discovered that its then poor management was forcing it to close. She and fellow employee Martinelli decided to apply for a business loan to open their own salon. One day, Cancilla happened to mention these plans to a client, Jerry McCallion, while cutting his hair.

“He said, ‘Why don’t I loan you girls the money?’”

Later that afternoon, he came back with a check. She was so shocked that she dropped her scissors and cut her foot. Even with her injury, she went into the bathroom and jumped up and down for joy.

The women found a place at 80 Beekman St. in the plaza of Southbridge Towers. Martinelli’s family helped with the renovations. They named their salon “Je Litique,” “Je” for Jeannine and “Li” for Lisa. They’ve been there for almost seven years and have good working dynamics.

While Cancilla thinks of herself as a pushover, Martinelli is very comfortable in the role of boss.

“When the floors need to be swept, or the desk needs to be cleaned, I don’t like telling someone to do it,” said Cancilla. “Jeannine doesn’t have a problem with that.”

In hopes of attracting new clients, they are offering companies in the area discounts on designated days each month. Also, for existing clients who refer a friend, she will give a 50% discount to each.

When she’s not busy with her business, Cancilla loves to spend her free time dancing the hustle and goes to a dancing studio once a week. Considering that she spends most of the day on her feet cutting hair, it’s a surprising recreational activity. “I dance all night,” said Cancilla.

Her dancing skills no doubt came in handy on her recent vacation — a cruise to the Bahamas. And the woman who accompanied her on the voyage? A client, of course.


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