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opinion | Marcela García

How an immigrant-owned salon embodies East Boston’s revival

The business growers: Her style’s taken root

Jori Bolton for the Boston Globe

SPANISH-LANGUAGE television is on, barely audible above the blare of blow dryers and the din of women animatedly talking, a typical afternoon at Marlen Beauty Salon in East Boston. The proprietor, Marlen Alvarez, is the ultimate multitasker — on the phone, attending to clients, supervising her employees, all at once. She is asked if her boyfriend guides her in making business decisions.

“Nope! In fact, I’m the one that has helped him!” she says, causing the women to burst out in laughter.

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Alvarez, a native of Colombia, is a self-made woman, no question. Commanding, no shrinking violet, she employs eight stylists at her shop, co-owns the building her business is in, and either owns or co-owns three two-family buildings in Revere. All this in just 17 years in the United States.

As immigrant success stories go, Alvarez’s follows many time-honored patterns: a vision, long hours, smart business instincts. But it’s not a reach to suggest that Alvarez’s rise also reflects the commercial resurgence of East Boston. The economic life of East Boston, often out of view for most Bostonians, has reached a new level of vibrancy with a growing number of restaurants and retail shops, a rising tide lifting the fortunes of many business owners there. And as Alvarez’s story illustrates, a little seed capital sometimes can go a long way. Certainly, Eastie is ripe for more government and private-sector investment.

For Alvarez, East Boston was the understood destination for people from her hometown of Don Matías. She did not come to Boston to find opportunity — she was successful but lovelorn after a breakup and wanted a change of scenery. She planned to stay for a year at most, but found that her skills as a hairdresser, honed in Colombia as a hair salon owner, earned her good money.

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After four years, she started her own place, and her business grew by word of mouth. “A lot of Colombians from Don Matías would come all the time, and then they started telling their friends and so on, and next thing I know I’m getting clients from all different nationalities — Central Americans and even Americans,” she says.

Her philosophy: Ni barato, ni caro. Not cheap, not expensive. And a commitment to quality — Alvarez is a type-A perfectionist. In fact, Alvarez insists all her staff wear fresh lipstick, and has been known to apply it to customers during a styling.

When she got tired of paying rent for her salon, she bought a building on Chelsea Street. Now five tenants pay her rent. The East Boston Main Streets program gave her $10,000, which she used to install ceiling-to-floor windows in her shop. A line of credit with East Boston Savings Bank, which provided her the loan for her commercial building, helped her upgrade the new space.

She is well aware of her business’s value proposition. “I have always done well. There are always people waiting in the salon. I have clients who used to go to Newbury Street [salons] and I hear them talk between each other and they say, ‘I used to pay $100 to $200, and with Marlen I pay $70.’ ”

She plans to open a spa in her basement in the fall, offering facials and skin laser services.

East Boston is an area of growing opportunity, she says, but immigrants are desperate for more information. “My clients ask me questions about everything all the time — property questions, how to buy a home, start a business, immigration advice. I’m part psychologist, too, because my clients tell me all their troubles and I’m always advising them, do this, do that.”

She adds: “A lot of new businesses have opened up in East Boston in the past few years. There’s a lot of competition but there’s room for everyone.” With that, Alvarez reminds one of her assistants to check on a client’s color under the hair steamer.

Marcela García is a special correspondent at Telemundo Boston and a contributor to the Boston Business Journal.
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