by Kier Junos, Abbotsford News
When Rita Penner was setting up her first hairdressing shop in 1957, her insurance broker told her, “You’re not going to make it here in Abbotsford.”
As the days rolled by outside his office window in Clearbrook, an increasing number of people were walking across the parking lot into Penner’s salon. About three weeks later, he walked over and apologized – and Penner got her insurance.
She was 22.
Now it’s 2016, and Penner has almost 65 years of hairdressing experience. And she’s still doing hair in her salon in her Clearbrook home. She specializes in styles from the 1920s through to the ’50s, because of the waves and curls involved. They’ve always been her favourite.
She wears her own hair in a short, curly style. Her handshake speaks of decades of briskly welcoming new patrons. She reaches for old photos from shelves above her head and easily relates the stories behind them. One picture shows her broken foot in a blue cast for the second time, still managing to serve someone by sitting on the vanity counter.
It would be a stretch to guess she’s now 81.
Her salon echoes her vintage sentiments, featuring vintage hair dryer seats in cream vinyl lined along on the wall opposite the vanity mirrors. The seats used to be green, and there used to be five of them.
Penner is trying to take on less work these days. In her salon’s halcyon days, she would hire four or five women to work with her.
Patrons would call them “the happy gang.” They would talk about boyfriends, husbands, breakups and other dramas. They would chat in the kitchen area down the hall, where patrons perhaps wouldn’t be able to smell the cigarette smoke.
Penner felt slightly ill when she smelled Black Cat cigarettes as a teenager on her first bus to hair school in Vancouver.
The standards were extremely meticulous, and Penner was much quicker than others.
Patrons would ask for her, saying, “I want that girl!”
In her Abbotsford salon, Penner would also cut men’s hair. But eventually she wanted to spend more time specifically with her “ladies.”
Most of her clientele are seniors. There aren’t any teenagers or children, since they’re probably looking for more modern styles. And the kids whose hair she did cut in her Abbotsford salon are all seniors now.
That does mean helping some patrons down the steps to her salon.
“If I’m still hairdressing at 90,” says Penner, looking at 2026, “We’ll have a party.”