Spotlight: Tortola Salon

Because this site focuses on news, the businesses that have been around awhile—and that make this neighborhood special—don’t get the coverage they should. Photographs for the “Spotlight” series are by Claudine Williams Photography, a full-service photography studio specializing in portraits for families, individuals as well as personal and professional branding.

When Tom Kollar and Jo Castagna first opened Tortola Salon in 1983, there were only a couple of barber shops in the neighborhood. In the subsequent 35 years—first on Chambers, then on Franklin, now on Ericsson Place—Tortola has acquired a devoted clientele. “We have three generations of clients,” says Kollar. “I’ve had boys as clients who I watched grow up, and I also do their parents and grandparents. And these are not young kids!” They also live in Tribeca, with their dog, Bucci.

How did you get started in this business?
Tom: I was out of college with no job. Nothing was happening at that time—I had friends graduating who were working at Macy’s. Another friend said, “I’m going to beauty school. Want to go?” My friend dropped out after two weeks, but that’s where Jo and I met. He was a little bit ahead of me.
Jo: In college, I graduated with degrees in history and psychology, but my primary thing was dancing. During my final year, however, I had a bad accident. I was dating someone who was doing Jackie Kennedy’s hair, and he said I should go to beauty school. I figured if I didn’t like it, I could do something else.
Tom: I was working in the Five Towns and on 57th Street.
Jo: And I was working in Soho. We coupled up early on, but we had separate jobs. I moved into Tribeca, so I could walk to work. This was in the late 70s.

When did you open Tortola? Why here?
Tom: We both wanted to be downtown, because of the quieter feeling. We looked here and the Flatiron—it was only a hint of a neighborhood then. We went with Tribeca because the artists were here, we lived here, and the energy was where we were.
Jo: And our clients liked it. The first Tortola opened at 157 Chambers in January, 1983. There was no BMCC  then, and none of those large buildings.
Tom: Chambers was so quiet! It was a one-way street, and you could park there so easily on a Saturday.
Jo: We had a great commercial landlord. He bought the building in the crash of 1929.
Tom: A lot of the deal was done on a handshake. It was really something.
Jo: He liked to say, “For me to make a buck, you need to make a buck.”
Tom: We were there from 1983 to 1992. Then we moved to 158 Franklin Street, where Urban Archaeology is now.
Jo: I knew Gil [Shapiro] from Soho, when Urban Archaeology was on Spring.
Tom: We were on Franklin for 10 years, 1992 to 2002. Then we came here, to Ericsson Place.

What was here before?
Tom: It was completely raw.
Jo: There was no electricity.
Tom: We had to jackhammer the floor and pour a new one.
Jo: We looked at it with a flashlight. We were very lucky. We had a fabulous self-made contractor. It was done in under three months.

Why the name Tortola?
Jo: It was our favorite island—we used to go frequently. The name Tortola was the feeling of an island and relaxation, and it’s where we were at, business-wise. Our first salon was done on a shoestring. The walls were seashell-y pink, and we had ’20s and ’30s ceramic flamingos in the windows. Friends came and airbrushed palm trees on the wall. They’re actually still on our business cards.

What is Tortola known for? What distinguishes it?
Tom: I’ve always approached hair from listening, talking, and learning. Even with clients I’ve had for 30 years, I sit them down and we talk for a minute.
Jo: I liken it to a craft, rather than an art. I don’t own a canvas that I take home with me. It’s about someone’s desires and needs. Sometimes people want to be told what they should do. For many, it’s not a vanity issue at all. They simply don’t want to have to take care of their hair.
Tom: And I think of the salon as a safe place. During the World Trade Center bombing, people just came over. And after 9/11, we had hot water, and a lot of buildings didn’t, so people would come in and wash their hair and hang out.

What’s the most satisfying part of what you do?
Tom: Making people feel good about themselves. Sometimes it’s not just hair. It’s the relationship, the intimacy. Hair obviously comes first, but there are clients you see more than you see your own family.
Jo: I had a dentist who gave me some advice about starting a practice. He said you start out with flowers and weeds, and over time, you take care of the weeds. In ten, twenty, or even thirty years of doing someone’s hair, you really get to know them. But I also enjoy the diversity of experience. Pre-internet, I had an internet. My clients included a pediatric cardiologist, and a film stylist. I could learn things. And pass them on.
Tom: In thirty-something years of doing this, we’ve learned a little about a lot. It’s also satisfying to have such a steady staff. Jo and I are who we are, and we hire people with similar energy. Two new women who used to work elsewhere in the neighborhood recently joined us, and they keep saying how happy and comfortable they are here. People have come with big followings but the wrong energy, so we’ve turned them down.

Tribeca has obviously changed a lot since you started. Any thoughts about it?
Tom: We were the first salon to open in Tribeca. There were just two barbershops.
Jo: Don’t forget the Wonderland of Beauty! It was on W. Broadway. Maybe it was just closing when we opened.
Tom: Lance [Lappin] came within a year or two. It was just the two salons for a long time.
Jo: But we’ve never met them.

You haven’t?
Tom: It’s not in a bad way. Salons generally tend to keep a polite distance from each other. But they’ve called us if they need to borrow something, and if someone walked in and we didn’t have an appointment available, we’d happily refer them. But in regard to the neighborhood changing, there’s good and bad in everything—a lot of good in the changes, but it’s also more crowded on the sidewalks and streets.

That helps with business, no?
Jo: Yes and no.
Tom: Because there are so many more salons now! We’ve tried to go with the flow. I don’t know if the change has affected us either way. As Tribeca grew, we grew too. But if we hadn’t bought the space, we wouldn’t be in business at this price. We keep prices a bit lower, because of all of the clients we’ve worked with for so long.

How many stylists work here now?
Tom: There are seven stylists and one junior stylist.
Jo: Not everyone is full-time.

What percentage of your business is local?
Tom: At least 50 percent. It used to be more. People move away but still come here. Wait, do you mean people who live here or work here?

It’s up to you.
Tom: When we were on Chambers, we used to get a lot of clients from the Koch administration. We were just down the block.

I bet it sounds good to say you get your hair done in Tribeca—the neighborhood’s brand rubs off on you a bit. Kind of like if I were looking for a plastic surgeon, I’d be drawn to Park Avenue.
Jo: Maybe now. Back in the 80s, cab drivers didn’t know how to find Tribeca. You had to direct them.

Tell me a good customer story.
Jo: Because we work through recommendations and referrals, there are times when people who work together or know each other will be here at the same time.
Tom: Are you going to tell the story about the divorce?!
Jo: No. One day, two people we thought were quite close had appointments at the same time. I sat the woman down and started doing her color. I told her about the other appointment, and you should’ve seen the look on her face. I asked if she wanted to leave. She said yes, and ran out the door and to the right. Immediately afterward, the man came in from the left.

Where do you eat/drink/shop around here?
Jo: Pepolino is our go-to.
Tom: We’ve been going there since it opened. Da Mikele is our other sweet spot. Takahachi, too. Our friend and client Rosemarie had a restaurant in that space back in the day. And we like Estancia.

What does the future hold for Tortola?
Tom: I don’t see us ever closing the salon, because we enjoy it. So the future? We’ll be here.

Previously in this series:
••• Souths
••• R & Company
••• Duane Park Patisserie
••• Chambers Street Wines
••• Sweet Lily Natural Nail Spa
••• Floratech
••• Steven Sclaroff
••• Roc
••• Estancia 460
••• Boomerang Toys
••• Antiqueria Tribeca
••• Real Pilates
••• Church Street School for Music and Art
••• Kings Pharmacy
••• Church Street Surplus
••• New York Nautical
••• Lance Lappin Salon
••• Joseph Carini Carpets
••• Donzella
••• A Uno
••• Balloon Saloon
••• Fountain Pen Hospital
••• Abhaya
••• Chambers Pottery
••• Square Diner
••• Langdon Florist
••• Tribeca Upholstery & Draperies
••• Double Knot
••• Philip Williams Posters

8 Comments

  1. Love!

  2. Love the Tortola Family , I’m the happiest I’ve ever been ! Thank you Tom & Jo

  3. I have been going to Jo and Tom before Tortola. Hope to do so until I drop dead!

  4. I’m another longtime happy client. good article!

  5. 20 years living in Tribeca, 20 years Tortola client. Tom, Jo & the staff make you feel comfortable & welcome. We’ve traded recipes, restaurant & hotel recommendations. I hope we stay in one another’s lives forever. Love you guys.

  6. An informative article about two wonderfully talented and solid men who’ve made an indelible mark on TriBeCa. They say that some people are pioneers and others are settlers. I think Jo and Tom pulled off both with style and grace. Glad to hear they’ll be doing it forever.

  7. Tom and Jo are simply the best. They help you realize yourself in the best and most attractive way. They exude kindness and care. You can’t do any better for any price. Thanks, guys!

  8. What a lovely read about two smart and wonderfully talented individuals. After many years as a patron of the salon I loved learning more about their history in the business and the neighborhood. Tom and Jo are always generous with their expertise and hospitality and I always look forward to seeing them. The entire staff makes me welcome during my visits and after my appointment I look and feel great. They are, quite simply, the best. Thanks for all you do!

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