At last, a good hairdresser

STREET LIFE: SAMOTECHNY LANE
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The Independent Online
SINCE LAST August's economic crash, some Russians have had the faith and courage to launch new businesses. It would be an exaggeration to say the spring of recovery has arrived. Rather, a few ventures are tentatively emerging like snowdrops pushing up from under snow.

Of two in the Samotechny Lane area, one is a new hairdressing salon. Before Alexander opened "Persona Lab", we all used to go to Aunt Lyuda's. She may have been a wizard at dyeing the beehives of the local female trolley-bus drivers. But she always made a mess of my simple bob. Then I would go to some flashy haunt of the New Russians and pay $100 (pounds 65) to have my hair "corrected". Outrage at the price, however, would mean that next time I was back with the trolley-bus drivers, trusting my hair to the cheap and cheerful Lyuda.

Alexander now offers an exit from that vicious circle. Just before Christmas, he opened a salon giving the kind of cuts he learnt while studying in London, at prices that middle-class Russians, at least, can afford. He economised on decor - the walls are white - to concentrate on stylish cutting. "Everything was overblown before," he said. "Who could afford those inflated prices?" Now he has a steady stream of clients, able to pay the equivalent of $30, and is feeling optimistic.

Further down the road is Belinda. It used to be the biggest supermarket in the area and, frankly, was a bad joke. You had to be a masochist to shop there. The prices for the imported groceries were astronomical, yet the service was positively abusive.

When the rouble plunged, a funny thing happened. For two short weeks in September, Belinda, which still had stocks at old prices, became the cheapest shop in the area. Word spread quickly. Poor housewives flocked there to stock up on rice and macaroni and try, perhaps for the first time, more exotic items such as pate de fois gras.

When the last goods were sold off, Belinda went out of business. Since then, a lot of renovation has been going on. Last week, Italian leather sofas went in. Then shelves with cheap mugs, washing powder and shampoo appeared. What was going on?

I walked in. A young assistant called Dima greeted me with a smile. In the back, I met Maria Belova, the equally welcoming manageress. "Down boy," she commanded the black alsatian at her side. He was not a guard dog, she said, but a stray she had found injured and adopted. The atmosphere in the shop had certainly become friendlier.

What gave Ms Belova, who used to work in a Russian jewellery factory and also lived for a while in London, the confidence to open her own store after other entrepreneurs had been bitten? "We can't just sit and accept that our country is going down the drain. We have to try again."

Ms Belova, smart in a black and white hound-tooth checked suit, said lessons had been learnt from the crisis. "Businesses should not try to make too much money too fast. They should deal with reliable partners. And they should be flexible."

She went on to explain how she was creating a mini-department store, with a range of goods from expensive furniture to the cheapest household items. "We will watch and see what is popular. Later we might concentrate on one thing or another."

So far, customers are looking at the sofas as if they were museum pieces but they are snapping up the floral mugs at 60 roubles (pounds 2) each. "International Women's Day is coming up on 8 March," said Ms Belova. "For husbands wanting a change from the regulation three red tulips, the mugs make nice little presents for their wives."

Helen Womack

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