‘They Saw All of Us Grow Up’

A tribute to Devi Nails, a small UWS business that resonated through the generations of one family

| 08 Apr 2022 | 05:08

The toddler’s cries echoed through the apartment. If a passerby strained their ears, perhaps they could hear the sharp wails from the street as they walked down Amsterdam Avenue. The neighbors, though, didn’t have to strain their ears. The cries came every few weeks when the toddler’s nails had to be trimmed.

That toddler was me, and my mother couldn’t quite figure out how to cut my nails without nicking some of my nail bed as well. I cried and cried as she struggled to trim my tiny nails, squirming under her grasp. After many attempts at this, she finally resigned. Together, we went to the nail salon.

A frequent nail salon-goer herself, my mother knew exactly where to go. We turned the corner and walked barely half a block before we arrived at our destination: Devi Nails. There, she plopped me down and told the nail ladies her predicament. Gracefully and tactfully they trimmed my nails and painted them a soft pink color. I never cried in that salon.

“You would just sit on my lap,” my mother said when I asked her to recount the experience. “They would treat you like a little customer.”

In fact, by the time my mother and I went to the nail salon together in search of a way to trim my nails without tears, the women who worked there already knew me. My mother had been a regular there for many years, going while she was pregnant with me, and bringing me along to appointments before my own nails demanded attention.

“I started going to that nail salon in 1993 when I first moved into the building, before I was married,” she said, “when I was a young lawyer living in the city, and I continued to go to that nail salon.”

Cherished Ritual

Almost two decades after my first introduction to Devi Nails, I am privileged enough to have had getting my nails done become a cherished ritual. As I grew up, I kept coming back, not out of necessity, but out of joy. Getting a mani-pedi was incredibly relaxing. It was a time to decompress, sit in silence, read a book, or make small talk. By then my family had become such regulars at the salon that the women who worked there knew us by name, and would often ask about my grandma or aunt, who would come occasionally.

“How’s your mom?”

“Oh, she’s great!” I’d say and smile. “She’s at work right now.”

“And your grandma?...”

For their patience, kindness, and expertise, my mother and I are incredibly indebted to these women. As the saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child.” For me, these women played an invaluable role in that village. Every two weeks, I would walk through their door, greeted by warm hellos and instructions to pick a color. “They treated you like a princess,” my mother said, “and so they saw all of us grow up.”

By having the salon as a constant in my family’s life, they not only watched me grow from a toddler to the young adult I am today, but my mother’s transition from being a young woman starting her career in the city, to the woman she is now.

Another Empty Storefront

Today, I write this article after Devi Nails has already shuttered its doors. With no way to contact the women who worked there, I traveled to the salon to say my final goodbye a few days before the end of March. As I nervously approached the store, I was greeted with an eerily abandoned salon and yet another empty storefront — I had come too late.

Unable to recover from the loss in business due to the pandemic, Devi Nails follows the steps of many other small businesses in its closing. “The pandemic made you value things that maybe you didn’t really focus on before ... we’d been going there so long it felt like home, right? We took it for granted,” said my mother.

Perhaps in the grand scheme of things, as my mother put it, a nail salon closing “is no big deal,” but in the wake of a devastating pandemic, it’s hard not to feel a deep sense of loss for all that didn’t make it to the other side. For my mother and I, Devi Nails was “woven into the fabric of our lives” for over 20 years. For other regulars, the salon was also deeply significant, and for others in the neighborhood, perhaps another local business lost to the pandemic played a similar role in their lives.

The loss of neighborhood staples is familiar to most of us, and deeply troubling. In mourning the loss of Devi Nails, I hope to bring attention to the invaluable role small businesses play in our communities. Places like these are irreplaceable, making a profound impact on the neighborhoods they inhabit, and indeed making up the fabric of what keeps the city alive. As the city continues to recover from the pandemic, I sincerely hope places like Devi Nails are not forgotten about, nor written off as collateral damage in the path back to normalcy.