Dec. 21, 2019 was a busy day at Shear Comfort, known by some as “Evanston’s finest grooming salon.” Owner Cynthia Suszycki and Tammie Caswell, long-time friend and employee, greeted each furry client and human owner with their ready smiles and genuine warmth. It seemed like a typical day, except all the humans were trying not to cry.
After 30½ years, Shear Comfort was closing. Ms. Suszycki and Ms. Caswell were retiring from their respective careers and contemplating new, separate professional pursuits. Ms. Caswell had already started taking classes in medical coding and was preparing for a second career, and Ms. Suszycki was planning to relocate to North Carolina sometime during the spring of 2020.
The decision to retire was a decision she did not take lightly. She loved being a part of the Evanston community and the close friendships she had with the families that came to her salon. “I enjoyed my work. I was happy to be there every day, and I think that’s why the business was successful. As dog owners, both Tammie and I had done agility training and sports for years with our respective dogs. We used some of the same training at work with any dog that was anxious and it helped a lot. There was less stress,” said Ms. Suszycki. Of course there were times she and Ms. Caswell were nipped or bitten by an anxious pup, but thank goodness none of the incidents were serious or involved hospitalization.
Ms. Suszycki grew up in Park Ridge and learned her trade during a work-study program in high school. She completed an apprenticeship before going to college, and then came back to salon work a few years after graduating. In 1989, she bought Shear Comfort from the original owner. The first two years, she still lived in Illinois, but for the past 28 years Ms. Suszycki had commuted an hour each way from her home in Wadsworth to her business in Evanston.
Ms. Caswell started with her in 1994. Years ago, there were two additional groomers working with them and they groomed 30 dogs a day. Now a typical day for the women involved seeing 14-18 clients over 9-10 hours of canine “beauty treatments” such as nail clipping, hair washing and cutting, fur trimming, ear cleaning, and teeth brushing. It was demanding, physical work, but they both loved doing it. They were both owners of multiple dogs, all of whom came to work with them every day, and they enjoyed being surrounded by and working with dogs.
In retelling stories about her business, she had only good memories to share about the thousands of dogs and hundreds of families she had known and worked with over the years. She had seen children grow up, get married and come back with their own pets, often bringing their own children. She had taken care of multiple dogs for many families, shared in their celebrations and mourned with them when a dog died or needed to be put down. Some dogs were brought in infrequently, but many came in for grooming every week or two weeks. She loved the challenge of working with so many different breeds and sizes of dogs and communicating clearly with the owners so that they understood exactly what she would and would not do for their pets.
Ms. Suszycki explained, “Some dogs have a double coat, and they shed. For example, labs, collies, dachshunds and many others all shed. Other dogs have a single coat, and they have hair—almost like humans—and their hair grows out and needs to be regularly brushed and cut. With these dogs, if the owners don’t brush their dogs’ coats every day, the hair gets tangled and matted. To try and get the knots out of the hair hurts the dog, and I won’t do that. So I explain to the owners that they really have two choices at this point: they can let me shave the dog and remove all of its hair, or they can take the dog to another salon. Once the dog’s hair is removed, they need to commit to taking care of their dog’s grooming on a regular basis. The dog can’t brush itself, and it’s unfair to make them suffer because their human is too busy.”
The physical demands on not-so-young bodies, the long commute, the economic pressure of a rising minimum wage, and exorbitant health insurance costs all factored into her decision to close up shop and hang up her clippers. She was looking forward to sleeping late and not being in her car quite as much. But she knew she was going to miss the many families she had grown close to over the years.
That is why there were tears shed by the humans on both sides of the half-door dividing the waiting room from the salon part of the business. There were hugs and heartfelt wishes for much success in their next chapters. Dog treats were offered and bellies were rubbed (the dogs, not the humans). The women cleaned up and wished each other a merry Christmas. Ms. Suszycki would come back after the holiday to empty the salon, sell some of the equipment, and get the place in shape before she handed the keys back to her landlord. The new year would bring new opportunities and challenges, and she was looking forward to both.