Parted in the Center

Meet Punkin Center's hair apparent.

Joni is a people person, and she didn't think she could handle the isolation of Punkin Center. Although it was only an hour and ten minutes from Kiowa, it might as well have been Siberia. But Larry was insistent: He was approaching retirement, and he wanted to spend that retirement in the country. So they asked how much Punkin Center's owners might want for the cafe complex and seventeen acres of land surrounding it.

"We looked at the price and thought, 'There's got to be a mistake,'" Joni recalls. "If you added a couple of zeros, it might have made more sense. We just couldn't believe it."

They couldn't ignore it, either. In October 1995, the Chesters became the proud owners of Punkin Center. They transformed part of the complex into a two-bedroom home with flowerpots out front, fancy gravel in the yard and a picnic area on the side. In what had been a storage room, they installed two large mirrors, a small sink, a tiny bathroom and an assortment of shelves and cubbyholes. The plan was for Joni to open a salon and Larry to run the service station for a few more years, then settle down to do whatever Larry does.

Joni Chester snips the hair up there at Punkin Center.
John Johnston
Joni Chester snips the hair up there at Punkin Center.

"He's a retired fat guy," Joni explains. "But don't write that because he'll want to read this and then I'll have to blind him."

"But he's a cute fat guy," adds one of the ladies.

"And he does keep busy," adds another.

"Yes," Joni admits. "I don't know what he does, but he's busy doing it."

At any rate, the couple was ready to launch their new business. All they needed was a name. Joni preferred something catchy like "The Hair Up There" ("You know, like, 'The air up there?'''), but Larry wanted something practical that mentioned the location. And so, on August 1, 1996, a new sign sprouted at the northwest corner of the intersection of highways 71 and 94: "The Hair Station at Punkin Center: Excellance in Family Hair Care."

"My boo boo," Joni says of the misspelling. "Forgot the 'e.'"

She printed a hundred fliers offering $8 haircuts for men and $10 haircuts for women, then sat back and watched motorists slow down and gawk. On the first day, they slowed but didn't stop, and Joni wondered if she'd made a "really huge boo-boo." But the next day, four cars pulled in. Today, Joni has more than 220 regulars: Workmen who get haircuts every six months whether they need them or not, 91-year-old widows who visit each week for a shampoo and set, seven-year-old boys who want extra "man stuff" gel.

"Some days, it seems like the whole world drops by," she says.

Cherry Stogsdill used to get her hair done in Karval, which boasts a population of seventy, "including the dogs." But she switched to the Hair Station after a warning from the "neck patrol." Cherry plays the organ in church every Sunday, sitting directly in front of her mother, who saw that Cherry's hair wasn't evenly cut at the neckline.

"She and her friends conferred about it quite a bit," Cherry recalls. "I never realized it was that bad, but they decided I'd better call Joni. But I don't think the woman in Karval would appreciate reading that in the newspaper."

"Want me to send her a copy?" Joni offers.

Joni and her straight necklines helped put Punkin Center on the map. In fact, it was even featured this past Thanksgiving on Good Morning America's weather report.

"I looked up and there it was," recalls one of the ladies. "Punkin Center: 35 degrees. But they spelled it wrong. They always spell it wrong."

Even so, word of mouth keeps the clients coming. A few years ago, that word had spread as far south as Alamosa, where a flamboyant art teacher booked an appointment.

"When he left a message on my machine, I almost didn't call him back," Joni recalls. "There was loud classical music in the background. And he spoke poetry, like, 'Is this Little Salon du Prairie?' But he drove all the way up here. After I finished, he held up the mirror and said, "I loooove it. I just loooove it.'"

And they loooove it, Joni says, because she gives customers what they want. If they're after a cut and a shampoo, they get a cut and a shampoo. If they bring a magazine clipping, she'll do her best to match it. And if they want a blue streak down the side, she'll give them that, too.

"How about it?" she asks a blond basketball player. "How about a little blue streak so you can have the school colors? Blue and gold?"

"I don't think so," he says. "Just do it so it sticks up in the front."

"Okay. I'll do it so it sticks up in the front. Just let me get the Elmer's. But when you're playing ball, don't put your head up or you'll put someone's eye out."

Joni keeps up with the current styles. She travels to hair shows, reads trade magazines and gives her customers regular reports from New York and Los Angeles. "The big thing is the shag and the Afro," she says. "In Punkin Center? I don't think so."

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