Her beauty secret? A satisfying career

by Bob Sylva

(Published Feb. 10, 2001)
Beauty is a product of virtue and illusion. Mary dispenses a cosmetic palette, holds up a magical mirror, which reflects a lovelier acquaintance.

Mary’s Avon Corner is located at 497 El Camino, in space formerly occupied by a dog groomer (this, be assured, is a mere coincidence). Next door to Mary’s is Lynn’s Nails and Elite Coiffures. Thus, in a mini-strip mall, there’s a one-stop beauty mart.

Mary’s is little bigger than a compact. It is jammed with sparking glass counters and gleaming shelves. There is an ordered array of gels, shampoos, lotions, cleansers. There is a collection of tiny bottles, faceted cruets and crystal flasks, which contain no more than a mere swallow of amber perfume.

In the display case, in a perfect Wayne Thiebaud composition, there is a troop of lipsticks, bright gold cartridges at attention, each lusciously tipped with a candy-colored bullet that seems chewable.

What there isn’t at Mary’s, and this is surprising, given the selection of colognes, powders, and scents — floral, citrus or otherwise — is a discernible smell. Just this splash of bright silver light.

In the course of an hour, the phone rings several times. Mary answers it gladly. And there are two customers who enter through a front door that squawks with an electronic parrot alarm. The first customer, a woman, is a city worker. She’s wearing an orange shirt and blue jeans, and drives a white truck.

The second customer sports a fresh perm from Elite Coiffures. Before facing a blustery afternoon, she carefully wraps her hair in a plastic rain bonnet, as if it were a plume of blue cotton candy.

Mary Pierce is stationed behind the counter. She is wearing a glen plaid jacket with a rhinestone brooch. She has long fingernails dipped blood red. Her short, feathery hair is plum-colored. But her most telling feature is her eyes. Chips of sapphire.

“My mother,” she says of their origin. “She was a lot like me. She was outgoing. She was in business most of her life. She worked until she was 87.”

Mary is a mere 75. “Retire!” she cries. “What would I do? If I was home all the time, I would probably kill my husband. He drives me nuts. His idea of a good time is to go to thrift stores. I’d rather come down here. I like to be around people. And,” she chuckles, with a scent of avarice, “I like to make some money.”

Mary is a character — and a charming contradiction. Beyond a set of quizzical eyebrows drawn in chestnut, she eschews most cosmetics. “Just some foundation,” she says with a blush, organic in nature. “I sell it (makeup). But I don’t wear it.”

Her first job was at Walgreen’s on K Street. She wore a white dress and sold candy. Then she moved down the street to Rexall’s, and was put in charge of the cosmetics counter. She found her career. She was 18.

Her most vivid memory of that time was V-J Day. K Street was a riot of happiness and relief. People stormed into the Rexall store that day, not for jars of Ponds, but to grab every last bottle of liquor from the shelves.

She ultimately enrolled in a Merle Norman Cosmetics class. To learn the engineering of constructing a proper face. “Makeup can do wonders for people,” she says of an enduring lesson. Back then, she recalls these Coty canisters, which contained powder puffs as big as dust mops, which sent up clouds of deception.

Shortly after the war, Mary opened a cosmetics shop in Oak Park. She ran that for five years and became bored. Then she got a job as a dispatcher at the Army Depot, tracking radio parts. In 1980, she became an Avon lady, ringing doorbells. In 1990, she opened her first Mary’s Avon Corner in North Highlands.

Last November, she moved to this location, where the traffic is a steady breeze. “It’s a busy street,” she says. “But it will take some time for people to know I’m here. Being next to a beauty shop helps.”

Avon, she assures, is a quality product. Asked the most popular Avon perfume, she hands you a thimble of Imari, at $19.50 for 1.1 ounces. The fluid bottle is a contortion of possibilities.

“I’ve had a very good life,” says Mary Pierce of her years stationed behind a cosmetics counter. “I can do what I want to do.” Indeed, her blue eyes are clear, the witness of her skin remarkably aglow.

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