If you’re strolling down East Colfax you can’t miss Babooshka just a stone’s throw away from the Bluebird Theater.
On the corner of Colfax and Cook, Babooshka’s storefront features primary shades of red, white and blue mimicking the style of the old Bazooka Bubble Gum label.
It’s not really clear what kind of business Babooshka is from the outside.
But after stepping inside the quirky establishment, you absorb the wall of crosses in styles ranging from gothic to ornate, when you’ve looked at every single Hindu statue and Buddah and after you visited the bathroom decked in plants and the overwhelming sense of peace, Babooshka is simply a hair salon, giving folks on Colfax a place to vent, to transform and to be comfortable in their own skin.
So says Diane D’Angelo.
D’Angelo is a Detroit native who moved to Denver about eight years ago from Phoenix. She experienced the typical moving blues.
“The hard part about moving to a new city, above and beyond all the things you think would be hard, is finding the necessities,” D’Angelo said. “Who’s a good tailor? Who’s a good doctor? And most importantly, who’s not going to jack up my hair?”
She found her salon in Babooshka and her stylist in owner Cue Perez.
From the decor to the peaceful vibes and urban undertone, D’Angelo said she connected with Perez, who’s from Staten Island.
But when the pandemic hit and businesses shuttered during the shutdowns, D’Angelo worried the salon she loved would close.
“Babooshka was the first business I encountered that made me feel like Denver was my home,” D’Angelo said. “So many businesses were impersonal but this was the first place where I felt like the people who worked there cared about me and they would remember me.”
But with resilience and community support, Babooshka continues to be East Colfax’s “cheapest hair cut, color and therapy session,” said Perez.
We asked Denverites to celebrate businesses they cherish that made it through the mandatory closures and other challenges of the pandemic. D’Angelo gave Babooshka a shoutout in our survey.
Perez has been behind the chair for 40 years and she started Babooshka with two other women in New York.
“The name comes from a Kate Bush song,” Perez laughed.
She brought her talents and Babooshka to Denver over 20 years ago, starting in a downtown space, then moving to East Colfax near Fat Sully’s and now setting up shop on the corner of Cook.
Perez said she wanted to revitalize the area and bring in more local businesses.
“There wasn’t much in this neighborhood when I first moved here,” Perez said. “They didn’t come out to Colfax. They went to 17th Street. But bringing the hair salon here… I tapped into the community. Next came a coffee shop, then a flower store. We were inviting people to be with us and support us.”
D’Angelo said Perez is always doing small things for Denverites, whether it’s hiring people to do odd jobs, featuring local artists on her walls or mentoring young stylists.
Perez said that level of engagement helped cultivate her clients and really make Babooshka an inviting and inclusive space.
“We’re a judgement-free zone,” Perez said. “Gay, transgender, Black, white, we love it all.”
D’Angelo added, “Cue’s a special person. She made the place gender-neutral. The prices are great. Without being corny, it’s like being a family. You know that old tv show “Cheers?” You walk in and they say ‘Hey Diane!’ It’s an amazing place.”
But this amazing place was on the verge of not surviving.
The pandemic hit Babooshka hard. There were mandatory shutdowns and social distancing requirements, as well as numerous cancellations because clients didn’t know if they were sick or they just didn’t feel comfortable. The unknowns threw a wrench in Perez’s finances and her mental state.
“There’s so many moving parts to the pandemic and as a business owner it was pretty scary,” Perez said. “I wasn’t able to collect a paycheck for almost nine months. I lost sight of who I was and why I did what I did because…I was attaching my worth and my value to the money I was making.”
Perez said she worked hard her whole life, coming from public housing in New York to changing her “socioeconomic standards” for her family.
And after building Babooshka with her own hands and her own money, she applied for a grant for the first time. She went through the Bluebird District BID and once Colfax knew Babooshka might close, they came together and granted her around $20,000.
“I was so completely humbled,” Perez said. “I built this place from scratch. I’m one of the longest running businesses in the neighborhood. We’re therapists and it’s a great thing because we need them as much as they need us.”
A salon is by definition a gathering place. You head inside for a wash or a cut but it’s more than that, according to D’Angelo and Perez. To them, you go to be transformed, you go to socialize, gossip and complain about life.
And during the pandemic, we lost those gathering places. D’Angelo said she used to stop by Babooshka solely to chat and get advice.
“If I’m having a bad day, I can stop by and see Cue,” D’Angelo said. “I always feel listened to by her. I know she was struggling some through the pandemic and she could’ve closed but she decided that her presence in the community was just as important. I’m eternally grateful, not just for my hair, but for this welcoming place.”
On a sunny Saturday, D’Angelo stopped by Babooshka’s to get a haircut.
“Hey Diane,” Perez said “Have a seat, honey.”
Another customer walked in and asked about the salon’s services. The woman said she was walking by on her way to a metaphysical store and just felt the urge to walk in. A vibe she called it. And there is a vibe in Babooshka.
“It feels like home,” D’Angelo said.
Perez added, “People go away but when they come back to Denver, they come back here. It always feels like home because they always come home.”