By Gerhard Schneibel

At age 12, Linda Conner watched her mother, Helen, cutting hair in Tooms County and said she’d never do that kind of work.

But in October she’ll celebrate 40 years of doing just that at Helen and Linda’s Beauty Salon on Hammond Drive in Sandy Springs.

“It seems like yesterday, but it also seems like five lifetimes ago,” she said. Her mother died in 2001 at age 79. “She worked the day before she died; she gave a perm.”

Most of Conner’s customers are between 70 and 90 today, and many live in retirement homes or with relatives. Her narrow shop has curtains drawn over the windows and is sparsely equipped with old-fashioned workstations, hair dryers and sinks.

“I think the era of this is about over because people today don’t go to the beauty shop every week,” she said. “They do their hair themselves every day.”

That nearly bygone way of life in which women congregated in beauty salons to create a support network for one another hooked Conner after she graduated high school. Her mother had moved to Atlanta in search of a better life.

“I visited the beauty shop she worked in in Buckhead, and I loved the people there. They were so nice, and they were so glad to see me,” Conner said. She decided to go to beauty school and “never looked back.”

Conner said the perception of salon conversations as being centered on nothing but gossip is false.

Most of her customers were stay-at-home mothers who cared for their families and were married to employees of national companies, she said. “Our customers read the paper. They want to talk about what’s going on in Washington and New York and around the world. All kinds of conversation goes on in a beauty shop.

“After a while, the customers get to know each other. When things happen to one another, they want to know how they are. They want to know what they can do to help; everybody has to pull together. This is what all of us in here have done for so many years.”

One time the community pulled together was after the January 1997 bombing of an abortion clinic on Carpenter Drive in Sandy Springs. Conner and her employees were working on a Thursday morning when the bomb went off.

“The customers we had in here said, ‘Oh, that’s a wreck,’ ” Conner said. “I said, ‘Let me tell you, that’s not a wreck. That’s a noise I don’t recognize.’ ”

Everyone in the beauty salon gathered around a radio, but the first news the women got came from a customer on the telephone.

“Everybody was scared,” Conner said. “They were furious that this could happen, that anybody could hate so much.”

Several days later, FBI agents visited the salon in search of security camera videotapes. The shopping center didn’t have any. “Two men walked in wearing suits, and I told them, ‘You must be FBI,’ ” Conner said. “They said, ‘Is it written all over us?’ ”

Ginny Bremer, who lives in Hammond Glen Senior Community, remembers that time. She began frequenting Conner’s salon in 1994. Born in California, she lived in Florida and moved to Atlanta in retirement at the request of her children.

“Even when things were kind of bad, humor got us out of everything,” Bremer said. The salon “was always very busy: lots of people, lots of noise. Everybody knew everybody, and I never felt like I was going to the hairdressers. I felt like I was going because of my friends.”