PORT RICHEY — Photos of black hair models pepper the burnt orange walls at Euphoria Hair Designers.
A commercial from a local R&B music station blares through a speaker. Ebony, Jet and Vibe magazines, which cater to black readers, are stacked on a table. Black women slowly filter in, chatting with hair salon owner Nicole Silvera while she shampoos or curls their hair.
You won't find Silvera's salon in a diverse area like Tampa. It's tucked between an insurance company and a dance studio in a shopping plaza off U.S. 19 in Port Richey.
In a county where black women make up 1 percent of the population, finding enough clientele to fill Silvera's appointment book has been tough.
Even so, Silvera, who opened her salon in February, is willing to take a risk in the name of beauty.
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Silvera is 40, a Brooklyn native with deep brown eyes and an easy smile.
For most of Silvera's life, two things have pervaded: her love of styling women's hair, and her struggle with lupus, an autoimmune disease that swells her fingers and causes her joints to ache.
At age 16, she was diagnosed with the disease, which also took her father's life. Although she's constantly in pain — her fingers tighten when she curls or braids hair — she said she is motivated by her ability to lift a woman's spirits by styling her hair.
"This is my dream," she said. "This is what I want to do. Hair for a woman is adornment. It makes you feel good, when it's flowing and free. You put on a pair of heels and that's it.
"I want to make women feel good."
In high school, she shampooed clients' hair at her aunt's salon in Brooklyn. She later worked as a nail technician, then became a hair salon manager in Virginia.
When she moved to Florida last summer to be closer to relatives, opening a salon wasn't part of Silvera's plans.
Until she stopped by a Port Richey salon to see if they offered relaxers to straighten black women's hair. They didn't. Neither did four or five other west Pasco salons she visited.
That's when Silvera realized there was an untapped, albeit small, market for her services. So she tasked a real estate agent to find a salon. Using a loan from her grandmother, she bought the 1,200-square-foot space at 8736 U.S. 19, south of Embassy Boulevard.
She took the salon's name, Euphoria, from another salon she worked at years ago. She remembers how much she liked the relaxing atmosphere.
Her grand opening was Feb. 16. She barbecued outside and celebrated with friends.
After the fanfare came the hardest part: finding clients.
Word of mouth
Silvera spread the word at her Pine Hill church. Networked at parties. Placed signs advertising the salon on her car. Advertised for stylists on the radio.
Her drive is a constant one. When she sees black people at the grocery store, she hands them her business card.
She has one stylist, one receptionist and about 20 clients per week. Most days, she juggles the roles of part-time shampooer, braider and janitor.
She has yet to make a profit. Some clients cancel, or don't come back after the first appointment. But slowly, customers are coming.
Among them are black women who say they've abandoned salons in Tampa and St. Petersburg, preferring the local convenience of Silvera's salon.
Samantha Smith, 39, of New Port Richey goes to the salon twice a week to have her hair pressed and curled.
"She takes her time and doesn't rush," said Smith, who used to go to a salon in St. Petersburg. "She is easy to get along with. When you go in there, it's laid back."
Theresa Saulter, 45, was referred to Silvera by a woman at church after her Tarpon Springs stylist moved to Miami. She praised Silvera's work, although she acknowledged the business faces an uphill battle finding enough clients in Pasco County.
"I don't worry about it, as long as she puts herself out there, as far as clients go," Saulter said. "Word of mouth does a lot. We really need somebody like her around, because unless you go to Tarpon, or further down, you don't have anybody to do black hair."
Building a business that caters to Pasco's small black population is a challenge, but it can be done.
Ment & Finley's Soul Food opened last year in Dade City, dishing out collard greens, fried pork chops and red velvet cake to customers coming from as far away as Sumter County.
"We pass out fliers and use word of mouth," said Mary Graham, a server at the restaurant. "If you get the information out, people will start coming."
Word can also spread through organizations like the African-American Club of West Pasco, although the group has struggled to find members. Now its ranks are growing.
"More and more blacks are moving here, and I think that's going to help (Silvera)," club member Janice Cave said.
In the long run, Silvera wants to use her love of hair to make wigs for cancer patients, and teach workshops for people who don't know how to give black women relaxers.
Silvera worries about finding more clients, but said as long as she does good work, people will come.
"As long as I prove myself worthy of your head," Silvera said, "then everything will be okay."