Stylists at Gould’s Salon Spa have washed and coiffed millions of heads of hair in the 86 years since Sam Gould opened his first salon, yet no Gould has ever touched a strand of hair.
Instead, Gould and his sons, Philip and David, focused on building an iconic name in the local hairstyling and pampering industry that now employs 450 in its 11 salons, six full-service spas, and two education academies.
But even though it’s the largest hair and spa business in the area, don’t call it a “chain.”
“We don’t like the word ‘chain,’” says Philip Gould, who co-owns the “multistore, small business” with his younger brother, David. “A chain is when you walk into one store and they look like all the others — a cookie-cutter like [national chains] Fantastic Sam’s or Supercuts.”
“We’re local. I buy local,” David says. “I buy local,” Philip echoes. “We eat at Elwood’s Shack. We go to Bryant’s Breakfast. We eat and shop as much as we can from local, independent operators. A lot of people do. It’s a source of pride.”
David insists on making an important distinction: “Our competitors like to say, ‘oh they’re corporate.’ No! We’re family. We’ve just got more than one location.”
The company opened the first Gould’s Academy in 2011 in Park Place Center. Over the next six years, more than 200 students graduated with training as stylists or the various positions in the spa. The second academy opened in December in Bartlett to attract students who live in that part of Shelby County.
“We created schools so we could find people to hire,” Philip says. “As our salon and spa business continued to grow, we felt there was a need for better education in this market because we couldn’t get good stylists out of school,” Philip says. “They weren’t ready for us. We talked about it for some time and the opportunity presented itself.”
Sam Gould opened his first salon in 1932. He was an itinerant vaudeville drummer who returned home to settle down as the house drummer for the Orpheum Theater. That was his night job. He wanted something to do in the daytime like run a business.
Sam took a cosmetology course but decided he wasn’t good at it, Philip says. Instead, he chose to operate a salon business and hire hairstylists. In 1932, he opened a small beauty shop on the first floor of the Parkview Hotel, now the Parkview Retirement Community. As business grew, he added a second location at Kimbrough Towers and then a third in Poplar Plaza. This location became the signature store and business headquarters. Sam wanted each location to have a distinctive feel and his wife, Lila — David and Philip’s mother — took that to heart. She operated the business with Sam and designed Gould’s Kon-Tiki salon across from the Raleigh Springs Mall. It was a Polynesian delight with stylists in muumuus and Hawaiian music playing. The floors were covered with artificial grass.
Sam Gould also found distinction in less colorful ways. He used the layout of the salons to distinguish them from each other and from traditional beauty salons. For instance, the main styling area at Poplar Plaza was circular with chairs and mirrors all around.
“No one had a round beauty shop before Gould’s,” says Gene Finney, a longtime Gould’s employee. “Everything about a Gould’s salon was top-class. Several of us men wore suits and ties to cut hair. Sam Gould was strict about certain things.”
Finney was a well-known stylist at the Julius Lewis department store in the 1950s when Gould lured him away. Finney was impressed with how well Gould ran a business. “He was all about customer service, Finney says. “The place was always neat and sanitary. Phones were answered on the first ring. His staff was always smiling and clean. We did everything possible to make our customers feel special.”
Some customers were special. Priscilla Presley used to get her hair set at the Gould’s in Whitehaven. Back then, customers had separate areas so Mrs. Jones didn’t know that Mrs. Smith was getting her hair colored, David explained. So, no one really knew that Priscilla was there.
“But then Elvis would drive up in a convertible and the beauty shop cleared out,” David says. “All these women in rollers and their hair in other states would run out in their capes to see him.”
Stylist Homer Gilleland, “Mr. Gill,” went to Graceland regularly to cut the King’s hair. Mr. Gill always swept up his mess. No one noticed that the stylist took the hair clippings home where he kept them stowed in a sliced bread sack. After Mr. Gill died, his family sold the sack of Elvis’ hair.
Cybill Shepherd’s mother went into labor with her while getting her hair fixed at the Kimbrough Towers salon.
When he came to Memphis to perform, James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, had a hairdryer hauled into his room at The Peabody. His staff brought the chair back down the next day to the Gould’s Peabody salon. Brown signed the seat: “To my new friends at Gould’s. I feel good. James Brown.”
Even though famous people were pampered at the salons, Gould expected the same type of service for each customer, a philosophy his sons maintain today. Phones are still answered on the first ring. No towels on the floor. No doo-dads or knickknacks at the workstations. No mirrors filled with family photos stuck along the edges. No potato chip bags.
Hairdressers wear black smocks. Customers wear black capes. Shampoo bowls are glossy black. Workstations are black. The hubbub from conversations and the whir of hairdryers end at the doors to the spa. From there, soft music, dim lights and hushed conversations give way to pampering from massages or beauty treatments.
“Spa day is a red-letter day,” Philip says. “It’s a Christmas present or Valentine’s Day gift. It’s something special for a birthday. We have to make it to where they go home and tell their significant other what a great gift that was. We have to give five-star service the minute they walk in the door.”
That’s the beauty of being in the hair and pampering business. Everyone looks forward to getting their hair done, David says. Customers bring photos or pull up pictures on their cellphones of celebrities and ask their stylist to give them that cut.
“Oh, Farrah,” David says. “Everyone wanted that Farrah Fawcett flyback haircut. Then the Dorothy Hamill wedge, those long Jennifer Aniston bangs.” And then there was the 1980s big hair full of curly-permed, blow-dried, heaps of hair that could only find symmetry with broad padded shoulders in every woman’s jacket.
Hairdresser Karen Mayes, who has worked at Gould’s for 35 years, says she doesn’t mind when clients bring in photos because it gives her an idea of what they are looking for. “I try to gently tell them that person has thicker hair, the texture is different,” Mayes says. “I try to get something close.”
And if a customer is ever dissatisfied they get a personal phone call from David or Philip. Same if there’s a negative comment left on social media.“Oh, we’re going to make it right,” David says. “That’s part of customer service, though many of them are shocked when they find out we’re a Gould. They’ll say they didn’t know there was a person named Gould.”
But there always has been and the Gould’s have long been savvy about trends.
A revolution happened in the 1960s when British hairstylist Vidal Sassoon brought his scissor-cut, blow-dried styles to America. Gould jumped on it. He brought the cutting-edge method of hairstyling to Memphis in the basement of the Poplar Plaza store. He called that salon Hairbenders to set it apart from the typical salons. Clients would line up on the stairs waiting to get their hair styled by some of the best hairdressers in the Memphis area, which included Finney.
The new techniques eventually spread to all of the salons. The brothers took ownership of the business after their father died in 1994 at age 92. They continue his philosophy of staying on top of current hairstyling trends. They bring in consultants to hold workshops and they send stylists to conferences around the country.
When the Internet began to impact commerce, they adapted. They created a website and later a phone app that lets customers book appointments, buy gift cards, or summon an Uber. There’s a full-time staffer dedicated to social media. While they may have noticed a drop in the sales of some styling products, they’ve compensated by creating and selling their own product lines exclusively in their stores.
Beyond that, they don’t worry about the Internet eventually swallowing their industry.
Philip says, “One thing we feel pretty good about is that you cannot get a massage from Amazon. You cannot get a haircut from Amazon. You cannot get your hair colored on Amazon. We just have to continue to keep our service level high and keep our clients happy.”