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San Clemente Journal

Nails by Karen - Where Customers Become Family

Sep 30, 2021 08:27AM ● By Mary Colarik

Loving her job, Karen Dispenza at work.

by Mary Colarik

Imagine waking up every morning, choosing a pretty dress, stylish jeans and boots, or simply a casual beach outfit, and heading to your job looking forward to seeing your clients because you absolutely love your job and your customers have become family.

That’s how exactly how Karen Dispenza, sole proprietor of Nails by Karen feels each morning while preparing for work. And before meeting her first client of the day, she often does a bit of self-care; heading to a power or sculpt yoga class, or just walking to the beach and back, reveling in the SoCal town she landed in over 25-years-ago.

Dispenza began training for her career 40-years-ago in Rochester, NY. Upon graduating from high school in 1979, she went straight to hair dressing school, but instead of becoming a hair stylist she developed an interest in doing nails. During the late ‘70s and well into the 1990s acrylic nails were all the rage and she quickly became a proficiently skilled manicurist.
Karen’s first job in downtown Rochester was at Sibley’s Department Store-when Department Stores had upscale salons.  Her uncle, Chuck Dispenza, also gave her an opportunity to perfect her craft at his barbershop, The Squire, in Rochester. On Saturdays she offered manicures for men at his place. Another manicurist, a woman named Bobbi, helped Karen to perfect her skills, and she continued working in Rochester for around 10 years.

During this time Dispenza’s stepsister introduced her to her brother-in-law who was living on the west coast, the two began dating, maintaining a long distance relationship for quite a while. Eventually, Dispenza decided to relocate to Dana Point where he was living. Shortly after her arrival, she was hired at a little salon in Dana Point where she built up a customer base plying her trade. Unfortunately, the 14-year relationship ended and Karen pulled up stakes, moving a few miles south to San Clemente in 1996. She said, “When I arrived, San Clemente was still a sleepy beachy surf town where the sidewalks rolled up at 5pm.!” 

Initially, Dispenza was employed at different nail places in town, including two locations downtown on Del Mar, first Del Mar Beauty, then Rafael’s Salon. Later she opened her own nail salon in Old City Plaza. Her friendly attitude and positive spirit, along with excellent individual attention to nails, helped her build a steady clientele and she has been doing manicures and pedicures for some clients for 30 years. In the process she has also become a huge supporter of local businesses, restaurants and bars; a true advocate of the town.

Finally, Dispenza moved  to her current location, Nails by Karen, on South El Camino Real, Dispenza has created a charming place that resembles a tiny house from the outside. Inside it’s like walking into a cozy living room, complete with a charming blue armoire for storing supplies and a large comfy chair and table with magazines for browsing while toenails dry. Well placed pedicure and manicure stations, as well as a section for selling a friend’s jewelry, complete the décor. The windows and huge door are usually wide open, and a late-in-the- day appointment often offers a view of a beautiful sunset. Entering this shop is like stepping into an oasis of calmness, and Dispenza considers it, “her living room a welcoming home away from home-my clients are my family.”

Although she still does acrylics for a few long-standing clients, most of her clientele have made the switch to gel-which dries quickly and stays on without chipping for two-three weeks. She stocks lots of regular nail polish as well, keeping up with the latest color trends. Most of her customers also indulge in a relaxing pedicure every few weeks. She takes one client at a time, truly offering a relaxing grooming experience. And she is the happy recipient of the San Clemente Times Best of San Clemente People’s Choice Ole Award for best manicure and pedicure, not once, but twice.

Last year’s pandemic shut down was very difficult for Dispenza, but she persevered thru the “shuttered” weeks.  Many of her clients invited her to their homes for a mani/pedi, so she packed up a few huge bags with nail supplies and polish, traveling around south Orange County with her “shop.” She provided over-the-top sanitizing products-lots of wipes and Lysol, settling for an hour or so in the yards and patios of her customer’s homes. She said that although it was a lot of work having a mobile nail business it was fun seeing her “families” in their home environments. And once nail salons were allowed to reopen, she has been following all the Covid protocol requirements; wearing a face mask while working, and using disposable tubs, bowls and other paper products. Her shop was always super clean, but now it’s extra sanitized and even more sparkly clean.

Although Karen grew up in upstate New York surrounded by family enjoying the countryside and days on the lake boating, she loves living the SoCal lifestyle; “the weather here-always so beautiful with lots of flowers and places for exploring along the coast and inland,” she remarked. In addition to regular yoga classes, walking and hiking, she enjoys getting out, listening to live music, or riding on the back of a Harley with her boyfriend, David. They often head out the Ortega Highway, stopping in towns like Julian or Temecula, or heading to beach towns along the Pacific Coast Highway.b

Nails by Karen 1911 S El Camino Real. Hours Tuesday-Friday 10am -5pm
website, (949) 361-6693.