Owners are, from left, Heidi Bailey, Sipho Mangcu, Yvonne Adams.
Owners are, from left, Heidi Bailey, Sipho Mangcu and Yvonne Adams.

For years, three women who met when their children went to the same predominantly white independent school had animated discussions about racial equality and social justice. They met at the start of the Black Lives Matter movement and relished these vigorous conversations. Sometimes the talk turned to hair, a telling example, they agreed, of inequity.

Many salons don’t know how to care for black hair, they say, and it’s not always easy to find the right products. “The subject of hair is just one example of a way in which whiteness is centered without most white people even realizing it,” said Heidi Bailey, of Cambridge. “Most white people in the Boston area, even the most liberal among them, fail to recognize how detrimental this constant marginalization is to black people.”

Thus was born RepHAIRation, a store Bailey and her two friends opened in Arlington Heights that offers not only hair products, but a place for healing and connection. “The lack of access to black-centered salons and products just happened to be one thing that we felt like we actually had the power to change,” said Sipho Mangcu, of Cambridge.

Juneteenth opening

RepHAIRations opened on Juneteenth (June 19), the holiday that marks the emancipation of slaves in the United States. It sells such hair products as extensions, weaves, wigs, moisturizing products for natural hair and head wraps. In addition, it carries books by black writers and products made by black-owned businesses, such as the colorful masks currently in the store. “We love our hair, and we wanted our girls to love their hair; we wanted a space to celebrate our hair and to be ourselves,” said Mangcu.

In addition to providing hard-to-get products and information about black hair, the three owners also see their store as a comfortable space for conversation and community. “We want to provide a welcoming environment in which anyone can shop, discuss, question, advise, laugh and appreciate textured hair and all the ways we choose to style it,” their website says.

Running a store is a new experience for all three. Yvonne Adams, who lives in Watertown, is the only one of the three with business experience, having operated a pet-sitting business years ago and acknowledges “a brick-and-mortar store is out of my wheelhouse.” She is white, while Mangcu is black and Bailey is biracial.

'Ghost buyer'

The women decided that Adams, as the only white person, would be what they call a “ghost buyer,” negotiating the lease with the landlord and dealing with the bank for a loan. “It was a way to have a black-owned business but have a white person hold the door open and help clear the hurdles that black people usually face, ” Bailey, a preschool teacher, said. “It’s infinitely easier to have the white person be the spokesperson and then nobody thinks twice about it. If Sipho and I show up, there definitely would be questions.”

The women chose Arlington in order to serve the black population north and west of Boston. “There are plenty of stores south of Boston that focus on African-American hair, but very few in the northwest suburbs,” said Adams. The plan, she said, is to have a black-centered space “very intentionally placed on a main street on a side of town where that type of space is badly needed.”

The women have been both helped and hindered by their timing. The coronavirus meant that a planned opening in March had to be postponed. But then they were able to open the doors in the midst of a national awakening about racism. Bailey said the hope is that in addition to selling products and providing advice and education, the store will become the hub of a community. “This is not just a place for our own children but for all our children. It’s hard to find spaces where we can be comfortable, where all children – black, brown, white and mixed can meet.”

For now, the store, at 1339 Mass. Ave., is open Wednesday from noon to 4 p.m., Thursday from 4 to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. or by appointment. Products can be purchased online at www.rephairations.com with no delivery charge. The women hope to eventually add hours.

List of black-owned businesses in the Boston area

This business feature by YourArlington co-publisher Marjorie Howard was published on Tuesday, July 14, 2020.