For the Love of Little Broken Things: A Chicago Hairstylist Emerges Stronger After Fire
“love breaks my bones and I laugh.”
—Charles Bukowski, Fingernails; Nostrils; Shoelaces
Cassie Krepel had worked at plenty of different salons. In Chicago and Nashville and in different corners of Los Angeles cutting California locks. None of these were the type of place where she wanted to style, cut and color hair, so, she opened her own. Something different. Something welcoming. Something for the neighborhood and its creative freaks and weirdoes and straight-laced downtown nine-to-fivers and suburban empty nesters. Something that wasn’t limiting in possibility. She called it Little Broken Things.
Doors opened on Aug. 16, 2017. Right away, business was great. The art gallery concept was a success and word was spreading quickly. The neighborhood was responding. Eight weeks later, it all went up in smoke.
While the neighborhood slept through the pre-dawn autumn hours, the EyeVac used to vacuum up the clippings had gone haywire. The electrical fire quietly smoldered, heating up the split-level salon on the edge of Bucktown. The smoke grew darker, thicker, hotter. The walls, artifacts, appliances and Krepel’s dreams, future, chef-d’oeuvre melted — distorted into grotesque evidence of loss charred black.
Krepel had just returned from a weekend getaway in Nashville. It was meant to be an easy Monday to kick back and recover from the trip to Music City; coffee, read a book, listen to her boyfriend’s band, End It All — whatever people do on a day off, because no self-respecting hairstylist works on Mondays. Her phone rang at 8 a.m.
She and her boyfriend rushed over to Little Broken Things. Fire trucks lined Western Avenue. The large street-facing windows had been smashed out sending glass shards to litter the sidewalk. Her heart sank. Her stomach seized. Her face went numb. She squeezed past the firefighters and looky-loos. The remains inside were hardly recognizable. Dirt from plants knocked over turned to mud in the puddles left by the firehoses. Her hand-picked antiques and furniture and oriental rug were caked in soot and destruction. The large Chicago flag hanging from the wall in the waiting area was stained with black smoke.
Little Broken Things was made to create beauty, cultivate artistry and convoke friends. But now, mere weeks after its ribbon-cutting, it was a taped-off crime scene. Do Not Enter. The investigation was underway.
Krepel had opened her business fast and furiously. It wasn’t easy. And as she stood among the soaked and smoked-out wreckage, she knew that she had to put it all back together again. What she didn’t know was how and how hard things were about to get.
Finding a place
Cassie Krepel never wanted to work in a salon. Not the kind most of us are used to, anyway. The ones that feel sterile, bleached out and void of personality. The kind where you’re made to feel lucky just to sit in their chair. Or the ones that are out of the box plastered with corporate-approved pictures of power-pop punk bands on the walls. The kind of salon where you’re greeted with arrogance and indifference, where your name isn’t remembered once it’s written down in the reservation system. She never wanted to work in places like that but she had because that’s what so many salons are.
“I was always the odd one out,” Krepel, 32, says. It didn’t matter where she went throughout the 12 years she’s been styling hair — the smug joints in the hipster ’hoods, the Hot Topic-like facsimile salons on any particular corner — she never quite fit in. But she was good at what she did. She built a clientele, which may well be the hardest part of being a hairstylist especially if you’re a rolling stone searching for the place you can comfortably brandish your shears.
In 2013, having grown tired of salon life, Krepel moved to Los Angeles to pursue her other dream of designing film sets. A friend of hers was connected to someone who was connected, and Krepel secured an internship working on a horror film. Hollywood internships being what they are, she spent most of her time doing grunt work, which did not require creativity, but did require a thick skin for getting dumped on by the set design director. If she was going to make it in the movies, it was going to be a long, hard road with next to no financial security along the way.
L.A.’s saving grace was romance. While still living in Logan Square, Krepel had reconnected with an old friend from high school, a guy she dated for a month their senior year: Eddie Hamel. He was earning his degree in audio engineering in San Diego so they did the distance thing for four months before they both moved into an apartment in East Hollywood. While Krepel toiled on set, Hamel made the commute by train to San Diego every school day. It wasn’t ideal but it was something — they had each other.
The set design grind continued to disappoint. She’d finally had enough when her boss sprung a last-minute demand to work a gig, refusing to let Krepel skip it or be late because of a prior commitment to drive Hamel to work. Bills needed to be paid and her dignity had taken enough of a lashing. She left the Hollywood backlot for a Floyd’s Barbershop in Venice. The horror film she was interning on… it was never released. Not even straight to video.
Happier at the chair, Krepel remained an unsatisfied seeker. “I think a lot of hairstylists have this moment when they say, ‘I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.’ But then, what else do you do? And I was like, I’m going to fucking open my own business.”
After two-and-a-half years and five different salons, she returned home to Chicago and took a job at a chair at Twisted Scissors in Logan Square. She foraged for money, re-animated and built on her Chicago clientele, and when a space opened up at 2137 N. Western Avenue, Krepel didn’t hesitate. She signed the lease on July 1. Six weeks later, Little Broken Things was open.
Into the blackness
The first days after the fire were a blur. Krepel was on auto-pilot — survival mode. She posted the temporary closing on social media; updated the website; called clients on the schedule and emailed the rest. She met with fire inspectors, insurance adjusters and lawyers. Afternoons were spent on hold or leaving voicemails with the adjuster. It was a slog. Insurance companies rarely pay out a policy holder with glee, especially if that policy is only 10 weeks old. Was something suspect? Had Krepel sabotaged her own salon for the money? Of course not. But Krepel was a young woman, just 31, with pink hair and tattoos. They all looked at her like, Who is this little girl?
“I was so afraid of saying the wrong thing,” Krepel says. “I felt like no one was on my side, I had no one I could confide in professionally — I didn’t know anyone whose business had burned down.”
She worried about the big things like rebuilding her salon, and the little things like, could she take things out of the salon, was any of it salvageable… Is it all ruined? She knew how to run a salon but this, this was all new and she was alone — adrift, rudderless in a sea of firehose water and burned, broken things. One of the stylists who worked there suggested to Krepel that she change the name of the salon to Little Burned Things.
The name of her salon was inspired by the Charles Bukowski poem, Fingernails; Nostrils; Shoelaces. “I was always going to call it Broken Bones — it’s all about resilience. We’ve all had broken bones and survived,” she says. “But as I got closer to opening it, Little Broken Things had a better ring to it.” That name was a repurposing of her Etsy shop where she had been making jewelry and unique trinkets out of broken stuff like watch parts. She was creating little things out of little broken things. And now, here she was, having to create yet another thing out of broken things — her broken dreams.
Bukowski’s words and her own resilience got her only so far. Krepel is a doer. She needs constant momentum, true progress to feel anything even remotely like peace. So when the rebuilding’s momentum stopped, she found herself lost again. She sought out a therapist to help keep her from going mad.
“I knew I was repressing my feelings so that I didn’t have a total breakdown. It was important for me to stay level through this thing. But I didn’t want to just breeze past all of this. I wanted to experience my emotions and process them. I wanted this loss to resonate and always remember why I kept going.
“Day after day of having little to no control is my worst fear. I felt like I was drowning, like there was no point in getting out of bed. It came in waves… One rush of momentum when construction started — progress! Then, the next wave… no one does any work and I can’t get the insurance adjuster to call me back.”
Back to beauty
It took her a month-and-a-half to open Little Broken Things the first time around. Coming back from the fire took 11 months. She spent those 11 months trying to stay even keeled, afloat and fighting with insurance adjuster answering machines. She rented a chair in Lakeview. The kind of place she describes as politely as she can as “basically a big space with cubicles and plumbing… It’s where hairdressers go to die.”
But Krepel didn’t die. Her salon may have burned out, but she never did.
It’s a hot Thursday morning in September. Dana Jerman and I are visiting with Krepel at Little Broken Things. She’s not open for business just yet. In two days, she’s hosting a grand re-opening. There will be food and booze, and I can bring my kid. She’s got a little baby fever. We’re not sure of Hamel’s feelings on that fever. As we chat, it’s difficult to imagine Krepel frustrated with her chosen profession or furiously hindered by the past 11 months of slow progress. She’s cool, measured, funny and hopeful. It’s the kind of attitude that comes only after understanding the darker, uglier side of life’s moments.
“By the time I open these doors, it’s going to be such a relief to me,” Krepel says. “Normally, when you open the doors, that’s when the work starts. But for me… it’s like now I can fucking relax. Because I know how to do this in here.”
It’s not fair to call Little Broken Things a salon. Yeah, salon things happen here but it’s more of an arthouse. Artists, musicians, jewelers, literary junkies are all on display. “I want artists who you might not see otherwise. I want to highlight people who are just playing with art. When you get a bunch of weirdoes together, cool things happen.”
Cool things are happening. As we talk, alternative music from the ’90s plays on the speakers. Most of the songs I had forgotten I liked. Paintings (for sale and several sold) by David J. Paha hang from long wires on one wall. The Chicago flag is now framed, hung back in place but with its smoke damage untouched and on poetic display. Framed photos from the fire line a corner. One eerie image has Hamel standing among the destruction, his long jet black hair hanging over his face. Protecting his eyes from seeing the horror? Advertising that he needs a haircut? Or just a man still standing among the rubble, a show of resilience.
Krepel has a thing for strong, sometimes scary men with artistry and brilliance in their veins. Hamel, for one is a musician, audio engineer and owner of Scripts Records who while kind, dabbles in art’s heavier forms. Hunter S. Thompson’s and Terry Gilliam’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas is the theme of the bathroom. It’s bat country in there. Answering nature’s call in this bathroom makes you feel like you’ve ingested “two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers... Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls.” It’s amazing. On the back wall, a large mural of Bukowski’s anguished grin oversees the chairs and art and metal band patches and vintage typewriters (as if there’s any other kind) and earrings made of little broken things. It tells us to “Find what you love and let it kill you.” Taken literally, it’s terrible advice, but the three of us standing at the front desk chatting away all fully understand the sentiment. Just about anyone can. Certainly Krepel’s clientele gets it. Because they get her.
That’s why we’re here, that’s why Little Broken Things exists. It is as much Krepel’s soul put into practice as it is a place to get a cut, color, piece of art or good conversation.
What’s missing is an EyeVac. “Never again,” Krepel says. She got a little too fancy the first time around. Now and forever more, she says it’s a dustpan all the way. And she says that the gods spoke to her during the 11 months of rebuilding. Slow down. Why are you hurrying such a big thing? Learn more. “Patience is something I struggle with,” she says. “I think that was a big part of it. The fire took everything away. I had to sit and think about my life. I’m braver now. I know a lot more. I’m not so meek about speaking up.”
Little Broken Things opened again on Sept. 25. It’s even more the kind of place Krepel wanted it to be than it was before. It’s even more her sanctuary. And more importantly, it can be a sanctum for any of us. A place to be made beautiful on the outside with the ability to beautify our innards by consuming the art and music and that unavoidable sense of strength and resilience.
“Being a hairstylist, you create change,” Krepel says. “It’s immediate gratification. The idea is to make someone look and feel their best. Your hands are moving, you’re standing, your brain is working to formulate and mold your shape. You’re talking and being social, courteous, conscientious, monitoring your client’s comfort levels. Firing on all cylinders. There’s no time to think about anything else but the person and project you are currently submerged in. I love being a hairstylist, but this fire has given me a chance to step away from behind the chair and learn the way the gears move.”
We’re all rebuilding. We all want to be beautiful. We’re all seeking gratification. Krepel went through the fire and emerged to give us a place that is as much ours as it is hers. A place where we can feel beautiful, where we can feel gratified, because when we feel good, we don’t want to burn the whole fucking thing down. She’s given Chicago a place that proves the most beautiful things often come from the things that were the most broken.
New Art Exhibition Premiere: Featuring Will McEvilly — “Down Faithful”
Friday, November 2, 2018
@ Little Broken Things
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