A shop of compassion

Lots of places do hair.

Real hair.

But fake hair?

Up to 4,500 wigs at any one time reside at Bellissima Beauty and Wig Salon on California Avenue in Reno.

The shop sells half a dozen wigs a day, says owner Alan Squailia.

That's nearly 2,000 wigs a year at prices that range from $85 up to $2,500 for high-end hairpieces.

Impressive as those sales figures may be, it's the shop's work with cancer patients that sets it apart.

Who buys wigs? "Everyone," says Squailia.

Young gals who buy fancy hair extensions.

Elderly women who can't lift their arms to do their own hair.

Showgirls needing glamorous tresses.

Middle-aged women who want a style change.

And chemotherapy patients, who lose their hair during cancer treatment.

"People here are treated with compassion due to cancer," says Squailia.

Employee Carrie Bacon, who fits the wigs, is a cancer survivor who lost her job because she had missed too much work time to the side effects of chemotherapy.

So Squailia offered her a part-time job fitting wigs.

Later, she learned to do nails as well and became full-time shop staff.

"Being a cancer survivor, she understands wig patients," says Squailia, who nominated Bacon for the Sunshine Award by the American Cancer Society, making her the third employee at the shop to be so honored.

The involvement with cancer patients was no accident. When Squailia was 15 years old, his mother was diagnosed with cancer.

"Back then, they opened you up and if they found cancer, they closed you back up and said goodbye," he recalls.

After his mother died, he came to Reno to live with his father.

But he wanted to do something for cancer patients in honor of his mother.

Starting as a dishwasher at Saint Mary's Medical Center at age 16, he worked another five years as an orderly.

However, he says,"The business I evolved into today, I help more cancer patients than I did at the hospital." Area hospitals refer cancer patients to Bellissima.

So do places that provide free used wigs to women who can't afford to buy, including The American Cancer Society and Wizard Thrift Shop, as well as the Susan G.

Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, which gives grants.

Bellissima welcomes those women to bring in their free wigs to learn how to style, comb and clean a wig at no charge.

The shop also makes house calls.

Squailia tells of a call from a nurse at Saint Mary's about a patient who suddenly lost her hair and insisted she wanted no one to see her - no visitors, no family.

She had been pregnant, and so delayed chemotherapy treatment until after the birth.

Then, the late,massive doses of chemotherapy made her hair fall out at once.

Squailia took over a selection of wigs.

"Before I left, she was on the phone again, telling her friends to come see her," he says.

"She felt whole again."

In addition his work with cancer patients in the shop, Squailia volunteers each month at the Look Good, Feel Better program, held at Washoe Medical Center and sponsored by the American Cancer Society, the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association and the National Cosmetology Association.

Cosmetic counter saleswomen come to demonstrate use of makeup and head coverings, while cancer survivors return to show off their luxuriant regrown locks.

"Everyone in the program has been touched in some way by cancer; either oneself or a family member," says Squailia, the Nevada state chair of the program.

Also a tireless fundraiser, he's a long-time chair of The American Cancer Society's annual Relay for Life.About 400 of the 500 people he contacts for donations respond, and he says, "Everyone I ever met has been touched somehow by cancer."

Opened in 1965, Bellissima was located in downtown Reno until 1994.

The California Avenue location opened in 1989 and the downtown shop was closed five years later.

They sell wigs over all of northern Nevada and the foothill communities of central California.

But the wig business isn't all warm fuzzies and golden curls.

"Sometimes it's a challenge convincing a customer not to be someone who they are not," says Squailia."Sometimes you have to be extremely diplomatic and say, that's just not suitable for you."

"I lost a sale when a 70-something lady put on a monstrous wig meant for a 20-yearold showgirl.

I refused to sell it to her.

I learned later that she bought it elsewhere when she came into the shop for help styling it.

From that experience, I learned to say no 20 times, but then to sell them what they want."


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