For decades, Nelsie Long traveled from Lookout Mountain down to Cara Duffy at Cara's Beauty Clinic on Market Street to get her hair done. Every time, Long wore her favorite mink coat she bought with her Red Cross money she earned during World War II.
One can't exactly get a perm in a mink coat, so Long would always let Duffy wear the coat while she sat in the chair.
When Long passed away in 2004, Duffy was shocked to learn she'd willed the mink coat to her. Friendships like that, Duffy said, don't come quickly. But now, more than four decades of such friendships at Cara's Beauty Clinic are coming to an end.
Friday marks Duffy's last day as the owner of the salon, which has been a fixture on the North Shore years before it was known as the North Shore. Increasing overhead and traffic problems for her customers necessitated a relocation to the Magic Mirror salon in Red Bank, where she said she'll start next week.
Soon, memories like Long's mink coat will be all that remains. Still, Duffy said, the memories are more than enough.
"She was much bigger than me, and the coat would come down to the floor on me," Duffy laughed, recalling her customer turned friend. "I'd be shampooing in a mink coat. I still have it, too."
She started working at Cara's Beauty Clinic in her early 20s. Originally from Winchester, Ind., she moved down to Chattanooga after being wooed by a particularly charming Ruby Falls tour guide during a trip. The marriage lasted less than a year, but her love of the city never ended.
After a decade at the shop, Duffy — with encouragement from a new husband — became the owner. During her long tenure as the owner, many of the movers and shakers in Chattanooga came to her shop to get their hair done, she said. Long's family, along with other influential families from the city's two mountains, all came in for new styles and gossip.
There was never a dull day, Duffy said, recalling the time her clients and friends pitched in to get her a male stripper for her 30th birthday.
"He was gorgeous. He came in a tuxedo and everything," she laughed. "We used to have a partition in here, and there was a little 100-year-old lady in high heels trying to peek over to see."
Paul Thacker, then-owner of the Town and Country Barber Shop right next door to Cara's Beauty Clinic, was one of the people who pitched in for the male stripper. Not long after, to get back at him, Duffy and some of her coworkers and clients strolled into his shop on his birthday in tights and bathing suits for a small dance routine. The laughter could be heard blocks away.
"Of course, it wasn't vulgar. It was done in very good taste," she said. "That didn't stop him from getting embarrassed, though. His face turned such a bright red."
Duffy is not happy to relinquish her salon, but times have changed for her. Her husband of over 30 years passed away from multiple sclerosis in 2014, and she's currently in the process of selling her home while changing jobs. As rent on the North Shore gets increasingly expensive, her overhead keeps going up, she said, and she's ready for something new.
She's also considering writing a book detailing all those years with the colorful cast of Lookout Mountain. She's even got a working title: "A Widow's Guide to Happy Hour, Good Food, Friends, and Whining." Writing is proving a bit difficult, though, she said.
"Every time we start, we start drinking and forget to turn on the recorder," she laughed.
Her comrade in storytelling and drinking is her longtime friend Peggy McIntosh. McIntosh started coming into the salon right as Duffy started in the early '70s, and being the only 20-year-olds in a salon full of mothers and retirees had them talking and getting together outside work quickly.
That's not to say the environment was unwelcoming, though. Duffy and McIntosh stayed faithful to Cara's Beauty Clinic for a reason.
"There's always been such a nice group of people here," McIntosh said of her decades as a loyal customer. "It felt a bit exclusive, honestly. All the women knew each other from elsewhere, from church or work. They were so welcoming, though."
McIntosh moved away several times with her husband for his job, but every time they moved back, she'd immediately return to Cara's Beauty Clinic to get her hair done by Duffy again.
"Cara and I just clicked as friends, and I'm a very loyal person," said McIntosh. "When I like something, I stay with it."
That loyalty will follow Duffy to Red Bank, naturally. Despite the move, Duffy said she has no doubt she'll keep seeing the same group of wonderful ladies she's grown to love each week for pampering and gossip.
As for her space, it's not known who will take over her location or what will happen to it. Duffy said next-door neighbors Milk and Honey expressed interest in the space when she signed her lease two years ago, but they haven't had any further conversations about it since, a sentiment backed up by the plaza's landlord Clayton Abercrombie.
According to Abercrombie, there are several parties interested in the space, but he declined to go into further detail.
To commemorate her last day, Duffy is inviting the public to her salon starting at noon on Friday, July 28 for a going away party, complete with food courtesy of Mrs. B's Reggae Cafe, mimosas and live music.
Contact Shane Foley at email@example.com