Drawing customers from around the state, Toni’s Touch in Portland is a beauty shop that feels like family
It’s Monday and Toni’s Touch is closed. Antoinette “Toni” Smothers and her daughter arrive at the shop to style each other’s hair on their day off. The minute the lights turn on, people start coming in. Buying supplies, making appointments, just saying hello. “They all know we’re here,” Smothers says, laughing.
Smothers didn’t plan to open a beauty shop. “I never wanted to go to school for hair. It was just something I always did.” With seven girls in her family, she had plenty of practice; she was an accomplished braider by age 4.
Her passion, she says, is working with children. Originally from New Jersey, a nanny position brought her to Maine, and she enrolled at Pierre’s (now Empire) Beauty School. She then attended Dudley’s Beauty School in North Carolina. “They teach more ethnic styles and how to protect the hair. It wasn’t really being taught up here,” she says.
Smothers returned to Maine planning to specialize in children’s hair, but demand for skilled braiders was high, and she quickly developed a reputation as one of the best—and only—in the state. She opened a salon, now located at the top of Forest Avenue in Portland, with a barbershop next door.
“From the beginning, I wanted it to be bigger than that,” she says. “I wanted it to be a community where everyone could come. It’s more than a salon.”
Since opening her doors 20 years ago, Toni’s Touch has become a community unto itself. Her customers come from all over Maine, as far away as Connecticut, and from every walk of life. She still likes the little ones the best. “I have a sweet spot for the kids,” she says. “There are a lot of interracial couples in this area, and I specialize in that in-between texture of hair.” She’d love to start a group to support mothers of biracial children—and teach them how to do their kids hair. “That would be great,” she smiles.
Toni’s Touch offers cuts, color and styling, along with braids, weaves, wigs and extensions. Last year she opened a second shop in Biddeford with a larger product assortment, and a carefully curated online store rounds out her offerings. Customers say Toni’s has the best supply of black hair products in the state.
Shay Stewart-Bouley followed her hairdresser, Tonya, when she moved to Toni’s Touch. “Black textured hair requires a different level of care than white hair. I’ve gone to a few white stylists [in Maine], typically with not very good results,” she says with a chuckle.
On her blog, Black Girl in Maine, Stewart-Bouley fields questions from black women coming to Maine. Toni’s Touch is the salon she recommends, although it can be tough to get an appointment on short notice. Often Smothers and her team are booked out for weeks.
Smothers is busy in the community, too. She visits Long Creek Youth Development Center whenever they need someone to braid hair, and she encourages her young patrons to explore the beauty industry as a career path. “These young boys, I’d love to see them behind the chair, running their own successful business. Everyone that comes in here, I want to see them grow.”
“I absolutely feel that sense of community [at Toni’s],” Stewart-Bouley says. “When I’m there, it’s anywhere from three to five hours, every four to six weeks. You’re in a shop that long, you’re going to bond with people.”
An enduring sense of community and purpose has kept Smothers going through some rough economic patches. Like most small businesses, she has to stay on top of her budget and business plan. She’s learning as she goes, and she’s always looking for ways to improve. Smothers has plans to expand her online store and eventually open another brick-and-mortar shop. She’d even like to start a school one day. “You gotta keep steppin’,” she says. “You stand still, you go backwards, so you gotta keep steppin’.”
Most importantly, though, she wants Toni’s Touch to always be a place where everyone feels welcome.
“People say, ‘this salon is so different, it’s so friendly, it’s like family.’ That makes me feel good, way more than what’s going in the bank.”
26 Forest Ave., Portland
And on Facebook at facebook.com/tonistouch3
Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving. Find her online at storiesandsidebars.com.