Meet your merchant: The Mermaid on Mill Street has been around since 1991 |

Meet your merchant: The Mermaid on Mill Street has been around since 1991

Hairstylist Kathy Payne sits in her downtown Grass Valley hair salon, the Hair Shaft where she has been helping to make people look pretty for decades.
Elias Funez/

The Hair Shaft

147½ Mill St., Grass Valley

9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Friday and by appointment


Kathy Payne still remembers how angry her mother was.

At the age of 7 in 1957, little Kathy loved playing with her Pollyanna doll’s hair. But after awhile, brushing, braiding and shampooing just wasn’t enough. She decided she wanted to cut it, then, if possible, dye it another color.

That’s when she discovered her mother’s Clairol “brown rinse” in the cabinet. She learned quickly that doll hair was distinctly different than human hair, a point her mother was only too eager to point out.

Kathy attributes her early fascination with hair to accompanying her grandmother on her twice-monthly “slate rinse” appointments at Wanda’s Beauty Salon on Mill Street. Up until the age of 12, Kathy would regularly sit and watch her grandmother and the other ladies laugh, share gossip and transform themselves.

She also watched everything the stylists did.

“The customers were all lined up with their heads under these enormous dryers,” said Kathy, with a laugh. “They’d have a cigarette in one hand and coffee in the other. With all those chemicals and heat, I don’t know how they didn’t blow themselves up.”

The stylists all wore white uniforms, but when Kathy saw them on the street in their regular clothes, they looked like movie stars.

“To me they were the most glamorous and professional women in town,” she said. “They wore false eyelashes. I watched them closely, enthralled with how they did everything. It was like magic.”

Years later, when Kathy was nearing the end of her senior year at Nevada Union High School, she heard there were full scholarships available at a beauty college in Sacramento.

“I had been wondering what I was going to do with my life, then I heard about this,” she said. “We weren’t wealthy at all — I didn’t want my parents to have to pay for any training. So I applied for a scholarship and got one.”

In 1968, 18-year-old Kathy moved to Sacramento and enrolled in beauty college. She graduated a year later and landed a job at Thelma Holloway’s beauty salon in Nevada City.

“Thelma was the first person to give me a chance,” said Kathy. “She took me under her wing.”

Kathy was thrilled to have a marketable skill and to work with experienced stylists. But after years of working in big salons, she was ready to open her own small business, where customers could escape from the relentless banter of nearby work stations and enjoy one-on-one conversations.

In 1991, Kathy found a cozy spot she could finally call her own. A salon was for sale that was located in what had once been a storage basement below the street in an 1850s building on Mill Street. It was perfect. At 3 a.m. one night, the name came to her: The Hair Shaft.

Today, Kathy is approaching her 50th year as a hairstylist, which nearly coincides with her 50th high school reunion, an event she attended this weekend. Of her 200 to 250 loyal customers, some have been with Kathy as long as 40 years, she said. But don’t let her decades in the biz fool you — no one is more focused on staying abreast of current trends and attending regular trainings than Kathy.

Striving to use products that contain “as many organic ingredients as possible,” Kathy regularly uses two of her favorite hair and color lines — Matrix and Pravana, which are both known for not using excess toxins, such as those used for creating extra suds.

In fact, her own hair color, which she calls “the mermaid look,” is a walking advertisement. Today, people stop the once-redhead on the street to compliment the stylist on her artfully self-executed cut and color, which currently boasts layers of blue, purple, green and pink.

“When I let the gray grow out, no one talks to me,” she said, looking amused. “But my mermaid hair is a real conversation piece. It’s a statement that says, ‘I’m an old hairdresser who isn’t dead yet.’”

At age 68, Kathy said she has no plans to retire — ever. During her three day weekends, she lives in Graeagle in a yurt and shares property with her two grandchildren, son-in-law and daughter, who is a professor at Truckee Meadows Community College. During the work week, she stays in Grass Valley.

For the past year or so, part-time manicurist and long-time friend Betty Meyer has set up a station in a separate alcove at The Hair Shaft. The arrangement has worked out well, said Kathy, as the two end up sharing customers who enjoy one-stop beauty treatment.

“I think I’d get bored if I retired — I would miss this,” mused Kathy. “Even after the third day off I’m ready to come back. I really feel as though I’ve been rewarded. I love and cherish this place.”

To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email her at

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