Feature 2, Story

Tales from the Dog Salons of Berlin

Among the classic Berlin bookshops, Spätis, and Apothekes, hints of more specific subcultures can be detected. Dog owners in the city have long brought their pooches to be groomed at one of the many boutique Hundesalons in the city. But how are these old-school businesses faring in the age of rapid technological advancement and hyper-gentrification? Writer Aïcha Abbadi and fine artist Peter Wood visited a few salons to hear the tales of the groomers who work there.

By Aïcha Abbadi (text) and Peter Wood (illustration)
See full gallery of Peter’s work at bottom.

Alt-Moabit 115, Moabit

Between a bakery and a sports bar, just opposite the massive concrete wall separating the street from the prison, Hundeparadies, or “Dog Paradise”, is a capsule from another time. Inside, dog food, leashes, toys and other accessories are packed on colourful shelves. The centrepiece: a big fridge packed with raw meat. At the back, two blond children, a girl and boy, play with two dogs while water boils in a kettle behind the counter.

Against all odds, the place is busy and customers enter often. Some stop outside to look at the displays. The owner, Frau Przisambor, still takes the time to talk to us. At first, she’s skeptical. But as our conversation goes on, she opens up a bit more, interrupting from time to time to serve her customers.

She moved to Berlin from Nordrhein-Westfalen as a young woman, and after a while she decided she wanted to be self-employed. Never having had dogs before, she opened her Hundesalon and store without much prior knowledge. In 1983, she says, this was a common profession and there were many – “just like bakeries.”

She has been running the store on her own for 35 years now. “The first and the last generation,” she laughs, with a hint of bitterness.

“Your generation,” she keeps repeating, buys everything online. “Everybody is sad when the small cornershop disappears, but nobody goes there to support them.” There are quite a few residents in the building with dogs, she adds, but almost no one comes downstairs to her store. They prefer to have food and supplies delivered from far away.

About opening an online store, Frau Przisambor seems reluctant. She doesn’t have the time: the bills must be paid at home and at the store. And she wants to retire soon as well. That’s why she has to keep on working: closing the shop even for a week would be impossible. This is the reason why she hasn’t taken a single holiday in the past 21 years. Would she take one this year? Absolutely not! It’s the same for every shop owner, she tells us. Sixty hours a week is normal, probably even more.

And it’s not just the store. In fact, she runs two separate businesses. While the store attracts customers from the neighborhood, the salon’s customers come from the outskirts of Berlin, Spandau for example. They have long-haired dogs, and this morning there was even a cat. There have been more cats lately and the appointment slots are almost always full. People from the neighborhood shop at the store but don’t come to the salon. “Your generation,” Frau Przisambor says again, “your generation has different dogs. They don’t get their hair cut or dyed. They have short hair.

While she cannot count on the younger, urban clientele, there are enough appointments to employ a hairdresser at the back of the shop. The narrow room is accessible through swinging saloon doors and has a big bathtub inside. It is decorated with dog figurines, framed images of pets and other paraphernalia. Chipped blue paint on the walls and artificial plants complete the decor. Frau Tomberger has been working here for 18 years but has been styling dogs for 43 – always in Berlin. “Dogs and owners often look alike,” she says, “it’s true.”

She smirks and poses for a photo with one of the owner’s dogs. “Can you see it?” She points at herself and then at Rocco.

They are happy for now, but the place won’t last forever. Frau Przisambor has to work to keep people coming, people who think differently from Amazon shoppers. This happens through recommendations from happy customers and advertisements she puts in local newspapers. “When I was your age,” she tells us, “the streets were different. Now they are dead. I don’t even want to go outside anymore. Back in the day, you could discover something new at every corner. But now? Look around, it’s döner places everywhere! You can write your article. It won’t change much. But good luck!”

Sophie-Charlotten-Straße 36, Charlottenburg

We enter a bright place that is instantly welcoming. Soft pop music plays in the background and a bunch of dogs greets us with some friendly barking behind the counter. Well, mostly friendly.

Giant schnauzer Dux is not here to make friends but to fulfil his job as security guard and alarm bell, we are told by Evelyn Reed, the salon owner. She warmly welcomes us despite being in the middle of grooming a poodle. He’s the second customer today and doesn’t like sharing the attention with us. He howls softly as soon as Evelyn moves too far away.

“This one’s spoiled from home, mama’s darling,” she tells us. No wonder he feels perfectly at ease under the big chandelier that hangs from the centre of the ceiling. “He visits every five weeks, but every ten would also be enough,” she says.

Evelyn has recently redone the interior, decorating a new counter with tall vases and a maneki neko, a Japanese fortune cat with a waving arm. There is also a cardholder with business cards for a dogsitting service run by a friend, as well as one from a dog sports association she joined with Dux. In a corner stand two donation boxes for causes she cares about: the Berliner Tiertafel, which provides food for those who can’t afford it. It’s mostly homeless pet owners who use the service and donations now cover warm jackets for the owners as well. The other box is for Schnauzer Nothilfe, which she cares deeply about thanks to Dux.

A woman comes in. She’s early and brings a poodle. Evelyn tells the lady she’s still not finished with the other one but she can leave her dog anyway. There is some motion and sniffing around, but then it is calm again. Most are tense and nervous before grooming, so even when it’s crowded, the dogs are mostly quiet.

Evelyn’s other dogs are Manfred, a Belgian Griffon, and Diego, an elderly poodle of 14 years that she bred herself. Before opening her own salon, she was a member of the “Pudelclub” for 20 years and was well-known for her poodle-breeding. She motions at the trophies behind her which she won at the “Großpudel-Ausstellung”.

In fact, half-British Evelyn, hailing from Niedersachsen, studied sociology before becoming an “Indusstriekauffrau”. After a period of unemployment, she decided office jobs were not for her any more and turned her hobby into a career. She’s been living in Berlin for 28 years and grooming dogs for 18. Snobby Dogs has been around for a decade.

It is clear that Dux, Diego, and Manfred all have a special place in her heart. We notice a big black-and-white print on canvas by the entrance. It is a portrait of Diego, when he was a young six-year-old and still participating in competitions. The photograph had been exhibited in an even bigger format at an art gallery and videos of Evelyn at work with her dogs have also been shown on National Geographic. Diego even had a short stint at UFA studios, where he played a small part in a trailer for a student Berlinale film. There have been fewer events like these lately, Evelyn says while looking at her trophies. “But in the past there have been more than enough,” she smiles. “Once you’ve done it, it’s done and there is no need for more.”

Between washing and drying, the preparation work can take up to an hour. To meet demand and take on more dogs, she has at times employed assistants and trained them. But the two good ones left too early to set up their own salons. The others were not very reliable and the quality of their work did not live up to Evelyn’s reputation. To keep customers happy, she decided to work alone, with fewer dogs but better results.

Sömmeringstraße 39, Charlottenburg

On the second time trying to talk to Marianne Buchholz, she has a little more time. On arrival arrived, the lights were already out and we had to knock a few times and ring the bell.

Eventually, the owner of Berliner Schnauze opens the door and seems surprised to see me. She asks again for more information and I tell her we’ve been to other salons before. “If you’ve been to one salon, you know how it works,” is her opinion. And yet she agrees to tell a bit more. I sit on an armchair by the entrance while she mostly remains at the front desk.

She motions around, towards the three bikes in the entrance and the cleaning products behind her. You can’t take photos now, she clarifies. Everything is already put away.

From then on, she opens up and tells about job specifications, clients and their dogs as well as future career aspirations. She has been doing this work for 30 years and has had the salon for 20.

It soon becomes clear that while her story might seem similar to the others, every approach is different. She sees the salon as a kind of kindergarten. “The people hand over their children, you know? There are also stupid dogs and some that just aren’t educated. It’s a thankless profession. Some bite you and no dog really likes it, but they learn to tolerate it. They have to, since they come every three to four months.” Ms. Buchholz says all this without bitterness and she seems to empathise with the dogs, even those that are poorly behaved.

She is intrigued that I can write while watching her, coming over to read my notes and briefly interrupting her stories. She laughs and seems more relaxed.

As a former zoo technician, she came to dog grooming out of love for the animals. “Once you’re with animals, you stick with it!” In her training as a groomer they gave her a cotton-wool dog, but “with the real dogs, the small ones, you have to be careful! They have small bones and move a lot, you have to stay very calm.”

This explains why we weren’t welcome the day before. Too many people in the salon cause too much agitation, she says. While she does have help in the summer, since the business peaks during this season, she prefers quietly working alone the rest of the year. Despite ten-hour days, especially in the spring when most clients come, she does take time to go out for lunch and takes January off.

But the long days mean that she doesn’t keep dogs herself anymore, as she wouldn’t be able to walk them enough. She emphasises you need to think it through before adopting a dog and be sure to have the time. There are often clients who clearly do not know enough about dogs. They bring dogs who wouldn’t need a haircut only for appearance. While Ms. Buchholz doesn’t always agree with their choices, in the end, the customer is king.

She draws the line at tinted fur, though. She used to, 20 years ago and with non-harmful dyes, but seems happy that it is no longer a trend in Germany. She asks herself a lot if this is appropriate for dogs. It doesn’t hurt them, but she wouldn’t do it again. The dogs also don’t want to smell like shampoo. The first thing they do is to roll on the carpet by the entrance, to take on the smell of their surroundings.

They still have instincts and they can be stressed out when they smell the products and the other dogs.  Since dogs make their own experiences and sometimes have bad memories, it is best that they come to a familiar place.

Berliner Schnauze is a business for regular customers. Frau Buchholz has some who visit with their third or fourth pet. One has counted the appointments of his poodle and has been 104 times with the same dog. Only then do I notice the trophies on a shelf in the back. She bred  poodles as well, and met many future customers that way.

Cutting hair is now her main business, but she also sells dental-hygiene products that she hopes more people would get their dogs used to from early on. Together with a healer and trainer she plans to expand her offer at the end of the year. The place will also be renovated and a video commercial is on the cards. Frau Buchholz is currently looking for filmmakers as she prepares for her busiest season.

Full gallery of Peter’s illustrations: