Ryan’s Hair Designs is a throwback.

And it’s not just because of the clear, plastic-bubble hair dryers attached to avocado-colored leather chairs purchased in the late 1960s.

The shop that at one time had seven stylists is down to three, but the feeling of family remains among its owner, his dedicated employees and longtime customers. At least one of those customers has been coming to the shop since 1967, when it was located in Monona.

“I had to have my hair done and I’ve been coming here ever since,” said Elfrieda Strand, 87. “I loved my hairdresser, Dorothy. I miss her.”

That would be Dorothy Mattie, who retired in July after 48 years. Shirley Adams spent 46 years at the shop cutting hair before retiring in 2016 while Laurel Jones remains behind a chair in her 47th year at the shop.

The founder of the business, Jim Ryan, has all of them beat, but only by a few years and next week will celebrate 50 years in the industry in a market flush with independent shops and regional and national chains. Ryan cuts hair only three times a week but remains a big personality in the shop, at 1025 Lumbermans Trail, near the Culver’s on Cottage Grove Road on Madison’s Far East Side.

“I’m so proud of this,” Ryan said under a constant din of background chatter. “I wish I could do 50 hours a week, but I just don’t have the lung capacity.”

Ryan, who is about to turn 72, has survived two bouts of lung cancer and is unsure how long he’ll continue in the business. He’s also contemplating how to pass the legacy of the shop to a younger owner but isn’t sure when or if that would occur. So for now he continues to work six hours at a shot on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and share stories of the shop’s beginnings.

“He’s got an awesome heart,” said Mattie, a cancer survivor herself. “He’s just very caring about all of his customers and us girls, too. We’ve just made it fun, and that’s why we’ve had this old-fashioned thing. It’s pretty awesome when you come to work and it doesn’t feel like work.”

Ryan is one of 10 children and whose father, Paul Ryan, opened a funeral home on King Street in Downtown Madison in 1960. Jim Ryan’s brother, Connie, opened his own funeral home in 1966 while brothers Pat and Paul founded Ryan Brothers Ambulance Service out of their father’s funeral home on King Street in 1962. The ambulance company, now based on South Park Street, has nearly 100 employees and seven stations in Dane, Rock and Jefferson counties.

Jim Ryan followed suit with a people business but focused on hair.

After graduating from Monona Grove High School in 1962, Ryan attended the Accredited School of Beauty just off Capitol Square, and after completing the course worked for a year at Neff’s at 342 State St. From 1964 to 1967 Ryan worked in the beauty and barber shop in the basement of the Park Motor Inn before he approached a banker at Monona Grove State Bank about a $5,000 loan to open his own shop. Ryan was 21 years old and his wife, Patsy, was pregnant.

“I asked for a loan, he talked to me for like two hours,” Ryan said. “He gave me the loan. I couldn’t believe it. I had nothing. It could have bought two new Chevrolets.”

Ryan’s first shop was in a garage behind the old Doughnut Land on Monona Drive that he remodeled and rented for $125 a month. Two years later, Ryan, his wife pregnant again, borrowed $7,000 to open a shop behind the fire station on Cottage Grove Road. The shop had nine operators while his original shop had grown to four chairs. Ryan sold the Monona shop in 1971 and then, in 1979, borrowed $65,000 to purchase land to build his current shop.

“It’s very competitive,” Ryan said of today’s hair industry. “Back then, I knew every single shop owner in the city of Madison. It would be impossible today to name 10 percent of them. You don’t see shops like this anymore.”

Over the years, Ryan, his staff and customers have donated nearly $60,000 in tips — collected in a Currier & Ives Christmas tin — to charitable causes.

Ryan said he and his brothers inherited their father’s business sense and the compassion he had for people. He also helped keep his son’s shop afloat in its early days as many of Jim Ryan’s customers were friends of his parents from church, card clubs and other organizations.

“I would not have made it without the name Ryan. I admit that,” Jim Ryan said. “My dad was the most friendly and honest man and it brushed off on every one of his children. But it was a big break having the name Ryan.”


Barry Adams covers regional and business news for the Wisconsin State Journal.