Phyllis McGuire | View from the Village: A haircut with heart in the stylist's chair at the Orchid Beauty Salon

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WILLIAMSTOWN — If walls could talk, the Orchid Beauty Salon, aka the Orchid, in North Adams would have countless stories to tell.

Founded by Lottie Harriman in 1927, the Orchid can boast of retaining customers for as long as 70 years. A longtime customer will celebrate her 100th birthday this year.

The Orchid was first located on Main Street and then moved to Bank Street "until it was torn down," according to information provided by Jim Carlson of the North Adams Historical Society.

I am never bored when sitting in the swivel styling chair at the station of Karen Cota, a hairdresser for approximately 40 years.

Although some women "let their hair down" in more than one way in a beauty salon, Karen does not repeat what customers reveal of a personal nature, nor does she comment on their foibles. But she apparently feels no such allegiance to political figures. Her candid evaluation of their character and performance are not in the least sugarcoated.

Karen is an avid reader, and her favorite genre is history. She currently is engrossed in "The Unwomanly Face of War" by Sevtlana Alexievich. Previously, she enjoyed Ken Follett's "The Century" trilogy, a total of almost 3,000 pages.

"I go to the North Adams Library just about every other day," she said when I was in the Orchid recently. "If they don't have a book I want, they get it for me."

When a relative went on a cruise, Karen did not envy her trip, but only that every day a distinguished scholar gave a talk about their next destination's history, culture and such.

Karen often brings a smile to my face.

"It's my son's 58th birthday. I have to go to his place and give him a spanking," she said, referring to an old-time custom of giving a person who is celebrating a birthday a number of slaps that equals their age

Though Karen is easy to wind up as far as politics, she is also kind-hearted.

I was in the styling chair one day when Bella, a 6-year-old golden retriever trotted into the Orchid, on a lead held by her owner. "Are you in a hurry?" Karen asked me. After I shook my head "no," Karen fetched a box of dog food and a metal bowl from a cabinet at her station. Bella scurried to her side, tag wagging.

A longtime 92-year-old customer who is no longer able to come to the Orchid is still beautifully coiffed; Karen goes to her home to style her hair.

"I've been taking care of her for 35 years," she said.

As a young mother, Karen had three sons to care for; nonetheless, she hosted a Fresh Air Fund child named George who lived in New York City.

"George was 5 when he first came to us for two weeks," Karen said. "Then he started staying for the whole summer. We loved him. He became part of the family."

In later years, George and Karen's son Matt, unbeknownst to each other, both named their sons Sean and Brian. Karen intimated that she questions whether that was just a coincidence.

Sometimes Karen will say, "I'm talking too much," but I always assure her that I enjoy hearing about her life outside the Orchid.

What I find most satisfying, however, is that when Karen stands over me, scissors in hand, she replicates my hair style in a photo I have shown her.

Once when "life" prevented me from going to the Orchid for too long, I impulsively chopped my hair with what was at hand: razor and cuticle scissors. The next time I was with Karen at the Orchid, I had no option but to tell her I alone had messed up my hair.

She was kind, only saying, "At least you admit doing it."

Phyllis McGuire writes from her home in Williamstown. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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