Tip Letdara’s new nail salon in Fairlawn is the culmination of a mother’s dream

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Owner Tip Letdara stands in her brand new Tip’s Nail Salon, a sleek, modern salon featuring leading-edge equipment and offering today’s most popular nail services. It’s a world—and a lifetime—away from the refugee camp where she spent three years of her childhood. (Photography: Benjamin Margalit)

By Mitch Allen

When you meet Tip Letdara, it’s natural to assume her name is a nickname derived from her career as a nail technician. But “Tip” doesn’t come from “fingertip” or “nail tip.” Rather, her mother named her “Thiphavanh,” and she’s been known as Tip since she was a child growing up in a Laotian village in the 1970s, at a time when Laos was an extremely dangerous place.

The U.S. had just abandoned the region after spending a decade dropping two million tons of bombs on Laos, including an estimated 80 million unexploded bombs that littered the countryside, and the Pathet Lao—backed by the Soviet Union—had just overthrown Laos’s central government, setting up a new communist regime. Meanwhile, the infamous Khmer Rouge was beginning the genocidal purge of its own people in adjacent Cambodia.

Tip’s parents had eight children—including two daughters, Tip and her sister. They raised chickens and pigs while her mother made beautiful cloth on a weaving loom. Her father was educated and that made him suspect to the new regime. In 1977, when Tip was age 7, the communists came to her home and took her father. The little girl protested, but the authorities said not to worry; he would be back in a couple of hours.

She never saw him again.

Afterward, Tip’s mother came to a horrifying and unimaginable understanding: her two daughters would be safer somewhere else rather than in her own arms.

Tip and her clients wear masks and are separated by special plexiglass shields. After each client visit, work stations, countertops, pedicure chairs—even doorknobs—are carefully sanitized.

“One night my mother said, ‘Pack your clothes. You are going with your sister,’” Tip recalls. “I didn’t understand what was happening. I didn’t want to go, but in the Laotian culture you have great respect for your elders, especially your parents. If they say go, you don’t argue. You just go.”

That night, Tip and her sister were delivered to an underground network of smugglers who were helping people leave Laos for Thailand.

“We drove around in a taxi until dusk, then hid in bushes and trees,” Tip recounts. “Once it was dark, we took a canoe in the river. We had connections at each destination, walking on land, traveling in the water on boats. We got to the Thailand border at 5 a.m. where a truck drove us to the refugee camp.”

Tip spent the next three years at the camp waiting for a sponsor that would allow her to become a resident in a safer country. She didn’t know on what continent she would find a home, let alone which country. Meanwhile, her uncle had become a Laotian pastor a Christian church in Northeast Ohio and he found a sponsor for Tip and her sister. At age 12, Tip arrived in Akron, Ohio—in February.

“I went from 80 degrees to 10 degrees,” Tip says. “I had never seen snow. I didn’t understand the language. I didn’t understand the food. I had never even eaten a hamburger. But worse, there were no kids playing outside. I was used to that in my village and at the refugee camp. Kids were always running around playing outside.”

Tip asked her sister when they were going to their real home because they obviously could not live here. She answered, “This is your real home now.”

As winter turned to spring, the snows melted and the children of Akron returned outside to play. Tip made friends, learned to enjoy french fries, hot dogs and spaghetti. To help her learn English, she watched cartoons. She went to school, graduated from Central Hower High School, and attended the University of Akron, working part-time as a server at the legendary Akron Italian eatery Yokono’s. At UA, Tip worked toward an accounting degree, but took a break and never went back.

She needed money.

Tip found employment with an Akron advertising novelty company where she imprinted logos on magnets and key chains. When the company switched from hourly pay to a piecework rate, it represented a raise for Tip because she worked so hard, fast and efficiently.

But still there wasn’t enough money; now she was married with two children. She went to cosmetology school to learn to do nails and took a second job as a nail tech.

Tip worked her printing job from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. then would come home to get the kids ready for school. Then she’d do nails before picking up her children at 2:30 p.m. to deliver them to afterschool activities. She often ate—and napped—in her car. She made enough money to send both of her children to St. Vincent-St. Mary, a private Catholic school, and take family vacations.

Tip also served as a Laotian translator for area attorneys and for government and non-profit organizations. Since 2017, Tip has dreamed of having her own salon, and last month she realized that dream, opening her own salon—Tip’s Nail Salon—in Fairlawn’s Merchant Square, on Ghent Road across from Summit Mall.

“Growing up, I was never a girly-girl,” Tip says. “But now I love doing nails. Many women don’t feel complete unless their nails are perfect. I feel the same way. More than anything, I like people and the friendships I’ve made. I go running with my clients. I go to their children’s graduations. This more than just a job.”

One of her clients told me: “With the possible exception of my husband, Tip knows more about me than anyone else in the world, including my children and my best friends. We can talk about anything.”

Tip’s new salon is modern, bright and cutting-edge, especially when it comes to safety and comfort. An air filtration system removes odors and dust, while plexiglass shields provide extra protection during the era of Covid-19. Staff and clients all wear masks. Pipeless jets on the massage pedicure chairs ensure cleanliness, and every surface a client touches is sanitized between visits, including doorknobs.

“We want everyone to feel safe, comfortable and relaxed,” Tip assures. “Our clients are from all demographics—all ages and races. There’s no rushing here. I want this salon to be a gracious place where everyone feels welcomed.”

Tip says some of her clients are men—and not just those looking for a manicure. “Older men can find it difficult to bend over to trim their nails. We take care of that for them,” she says.

The new Tip’s Nail Salon offers all of today’s popular services, including gel manicures, spa pedicures, and organic polishes.

I ask Tip how she did it, how she managed to work so hard for so long to make the promise of the American dream come true for her—and where she found the courage.

She smiles. “Compared to my childhood, life here is easy. It just takes hard work. I have a family, friends, a home, food and a car. I have everything. As for courage, my mother is 87 and still lives in Laos. She is the courageous one. I owe everything to her.”

Tip’s Nail Salon is located at 127 Ghent Road in Fairlawn’s Merchant Square. For more information or to make an appointment, call 330-802-3496.