Two small, distinctively different businesses—each something of an institution in its respective city—have survived through thick and thin for identical reasons.
Whether you're at Miraleste Hair Stylists, a tiny beauty salon at the tip-top of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, or at Dave’s Olde Book Shop, a used book store on busy Artesia Boulevard in North Redondo Beach, you quickly notice the same phenomenon.
The owners, Miraleste stylist Juana Alvarez and book seller Dave Prentice, adore people, love what they do and have a lot of fun.
Let’s start with Dave Prentice, 71.
Backed by sets of leather bound classics, enthroned on a swivel chair behind the counter, Prentice (who specifically requested that he be described as “a suave, ruggedly handsome book dealer") notes a customer entering his shop.
“If you need help, please ask,” he says with genuine enthusiasm. (The greeting allows lookie-loos the courtesy of browsing without answering in the negative.)
Once he is asked a question, however, Prentice is off and running, often with a one-liner. When asked how long he has been at the shop in Redondo, for example he answers with all seriousness, “Since 10 this morning.”
Eventually, he gets to the answer: “Four years here, 14 years in Manhattan Beach.” (He needed a bigger store and a kinder, gentler landlord, he said.)
Even his wife, Marcella, retired from a demanding job at UCLA, takes the heat: “Sometimes my wife will look at me and say, ‘How about a little romance?’ And I’ll give her a Nora Roberts.” (As in romance novel.)
Let’s just say Prentice has his act together, a comedy routine he could take on the road if he chose. But he doesn’t; he gets too much of a kick out of where he is.
“It’s a lot of fun,” he said about the business he dreamed up after he retired in 1977. “It’s the best possible business you could be in. For me, anyway.” Why? “I like books and I like people. What better combination is there?”
Of the steady line of customers entering the store last Thursday morning, one was a young director, who purchased Directing a Documentary. As is Dave’s wont, he engaged his customer in lively conversation, telling him how scenes for the movie, , had been shot at the shop last month.
Later, during the interview, he told how he teased director John Hertzfeld about using the store as a location site: “The hundreds of inconvenienced customers will just have to sacrifice for art.” Vintage Prentice.
Switching to “bookstore humor,” he talked about the difficulty of deciding where to place certain books on the shelves that are labeled by category. One such book, Exit, tells how to commit suicide. “You can’t put it in Psychology or Self Help,” he said, because customers looking to commit suicide “are always depressed.”
Where does Exit reside? “Do It Yourself,” he said with his characteristic half-smile that borders on a scowl. Naturally, The Art of War rests in the Art section.
Born in Canada, Prentice came to the U.S. with his parents as a boy and moved frequently: Milwaukee, Chicago, Florida. He joined the Army instead of going to college, came to the South Bay in 1964 and spent a decade as an aerospace quality control officer at VIS Corp in Redondo Beach.
After a whirl in real estate, he retired—sort of. “I didn’t like to stay retired, so I started a business … I just woke up with the idea," he said. "I thought, ‘How hard could it be to open up a used book store?’ You know, books and shelves and a cash register.”
Before you cross Prentice off as a serial jokester, be warned. He knows his stuff and can pull out many a book from the floor-to-ceiling shelves that form something of a maze in his shop and regale you with spicy details.
In the Mystery section, for example, he selects a book by Tim Dorsey, a crime novelist whose main character, Serge Storm, is described by Prentice as a “likable, homicidal maniac.” The anti-hero’s antics are “really funny.”
Prentice, who buys at estate sales and acquires books via trade, shows just as much affection for his “antiquarians,” beautiful leather-bound books inscribed with gold lettering: Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe. One 400-year-old tome in a glass case costs $400 and deals with “the wars between Carthage and Rome,” said Prentice, an avid classics reader.
Then there are the books deposited in the Recycled Book bin out back, some of which, Prentice said, people are “too embarrassed to take anywhere else.” That morning’s “interesting bunch,” included Love and Orgasm and Sexual Secrets, which he planned to house in the “Self Help” section.
A bookshelf of $2 hard covers resides unprotected in the parking area and $1 paperbacks are displayed on the street. Along with book-signings for local authors, Prentice holds an annual sale every August.
He treasures all his customers, especially romance buyers (“You have to be basically optimistic to read romance,” he said) and never dismisses those who buy books for show: “I think a book in a leather binding is in itself a work of art.”
Despite the turn to Nooks, Kindles and eBooks, “There will always be book shops,” he insists. The perpetual scowl deepens. “I would hate to be in this business 20 years from now." Deadpan again. "Chances are I won’t be.”
What brings a blazing light to his eyes is talk of his daughter, Kylie, 17, a student at Bishop and a star soccer player. Year before last, her team won the state cup, said Prentice, who went to all the games and had “no end of fun. All the girls are just such a great bunch of girls, the parents all devoted parents.”
Chit-chatting at Miraleste Hair Stylists
A fierce devotion to their children is just one of the many things Dave Prentice and Juana Alvarez have in common. Busily highlighting a customer’s hair in her tiny shop in Miraleste Plaza, Alvarez, 50, rhapsodized about her two daughters, whose early-childhood photos are prominently displayed at her styling station.
“Jaquelin is 24 and a Cal Poly graduate (and) she works a Boeing Co,” said Alvarez, a striking blonde whose upbeat personality permeates her shop. “My youngest, Daniella, is a senior at UC Santa Barbara and she is graduating this June (in economics and accounting)." Her brown eyes widen with admiration and astonishment. "She already has a job at Price Waterhouse!”
Married since 1986, it’s clear that Alvarez’ family has inspired her success. Her parents, who escaped Cuba with 5-year-old Juana in 1968, have especially been a driving force.
“We came legally—with just the clothes on our backs—the three of us,” she said, explaining how her father, Albuelito Alvarez, had applied to leave earlier on one of the first Freedom Flights the minute Fidel Castro announced the country had adopted Communism.
“Once you applied for a Freedom Flight,” Alvarez said, “you were announcing you were against the government, and so he lost his job (as a baseball statistician).” Forced into hard labor cutting sugar cane, he could only come home once a month. “And then his number came up, thank God, so we left and came straight to California because he had a cousin in Torrance.”
Alvarez' daughter, Jaquelin Sicilia, wrote a poem about her grandfather, which was published in the Byzantium, Cal Poly's literary magazine. The first four lines read:
The lottery for freedom drove Abuelito
straight to the fields, and sometimes I swear
I can feel the ligaments in his forearm
like violin strings pulled tight as he swung for the stems...
The family has lived in Torrance ever since, and now Alvarez’ parents help raise their daughter’s two girls. “Without my parents, my girls wouldn’t be as great as they are,” Alvarez said, her eyes glossing over. “I won the parent lottery.”
So, it seems, did the customers who get their hair cuts, highlights and such from the vivacious woman with the dangly earrings and updated Farrah Fawcett tresses.
Corinne Stolz Yeates, for example, has been coming to Alvarez—who she calls "the best kept secret in the South Bay"—for the last 20 years. “Everybody loves her,” the long-time Miraleste resident said as she sat for her highlighting. “You always feel important with Juana. She’s always on time, and she’s just cool.”
In the shop since 1982, Alvarez was just 20 when she started working for the original owner, the late Mike Bateman, who became her mentor. She bought the salon from him 20 years ago.
“I got into the business by accident,” she said, “pure accident.”
After high school, she didn’t have a clue what she wanted to do, other than to go to El Camino College and get a part-time job. She was working at Zodys when her best friend from high school said her father, who owned a beauty salon on Silver Spur, needed a receptionist.
“As soon as I started working there, I fell in love with it,” Alvarez said. “I would see how the stylists would interact with their clients; it was like chit-chatting with friends.” A “chit-chatterer” all her life, Alvarez said her teachers always noted on her report cards: “Great student! Talks too much.”
Another aspect of the beauty shop business that impressed her was how her boss would say, “I’m going to lunch; I’ll be back at 3.”
“And he’d be gone, jump in his little sports car and go off to lunch for three hours," she explained. "I’d go, ‘Hello!’”
She also liked the idea of owning her own business, something her father had done by buying a bakery shortly after the family immigrated to the U.S. Yet when she told Abuelito her plans, he said, "You'll cut off somebody's ear!"
Fortunately, Mike Bateman took Alvarez under his wing and convinced her to get a barber’s license and become his apprentice rather than spend two years earning a cosmetology license.
“You could start cutting hair legally while you were still in school,” said Alvarez, who was attending El Camino until 3, working at the salon until 7, and studying barber theory at USC one night a week. “Mike wanted me to start cutting hair. He always pushed me.”
Bateman taught her one thing she will never forget. "Anyone can learn to cut hair," he told her. "I can teach you; that’s easy. The difficult part is dealing with people. If you’re good with people, you will be successful.”
In 1982, when Bateman opened a second salon in Miraleste, “He had me running it,” Alvarez said. “I was 20 years old, but he trusted me.”
Another Bateman adage Alvarez has never forgotten: “We have a license to touch,” she said. “We get to be in (someone’s) space. Usually, if people get too close, we back away.” If customers feel comfortable, she added, “We’re like a bartender, they tell us everything.”
Respect for others and their privacy are key, she said.
“I’ve never had a problem because I just listen. I never repeat anything anyone’s ever told me.”
Her three co-workers—stylists Julie Biggs and Sharon Kobayashi and manicurist Tammy Hoang—are the same, she said. “They are not employees,” but rather, independent contractors, Alvarez stressed. “We are a family here; we love each other.”
“And everybody’s fun,” Yates said.
A few feet away, Tammy Hoang worked on Anita Bergsten’s nails. Bergsten has been coming to the manicurist for two decades. “She does a wonderful job, taking care of my nails,” she said.
Before coming to Miraleste, Hoang worked in San Pedro for 10 years and Alvarez was one of her clients. “She brought me up here,” she said with a wide smile.
The two related on several levels, both having fled their native countries without a single personal possession.
Born in Vietnam, Hoang escaped with her cousin and her cousin’s two babies in “a very small boat” in 1983, she said. The four spent “18 days on the ocean without food, without water, without anything. It was very scary.”
Landing in Indonesia, she applied to go to Canada, and later came to Southern California, where her aunt and uncle lived. She feels lucky to be at Miraleste, much less working for herself.
“I love Juana; I love a small shop. I love working for myself; I have two kids, two in college. My daughter is graduating in June from UC, Irvine. My son is at UC Santa Barbara for his second year.”
Everyone at Miraleste felt fortunate to stay afloat during the bad economy, Alvarez said.
“Customers didn’t stop coming,” she said. “But they would stretch it. Instead of doing a highlight every six weeks, they’d do it every two months. I said, ‘That’s great! OK!’”
Due to the extreme loyalty of her customers, she said, “We didn’t suffer like the high-end salons did.”
Miraleste Hair Stylists is located at 29A Miraleste Plaza in Rancho Palos Verdes. Visit the website or call 310-832-7681 for more information.