The Block Island Times

BeachComber celebrates silver anniversary

By Gloria S. Redlich | Jul 10, 2013
Photo by: John Barry Owner Mark Koch stands in front of BeachComber Hair Design, the salon he opened 25 years ago.

When a visitor from The Block Island Times comes to call, she finds Mark Koch, owner of Mark’s BeachComber Hair Design, doing paperwork on his breezy back deck at his home off Chapel Street. Settling down to chat with birdsong in the background, they look out on a yard lush with trees and shrubs and backing onto the tall grasses of a wetlands area.

Indeed, it was “following the birds” 25 years ago that led Mark Koch to make his home and establish his business on Block Island. With a partner “seriously into birding,” he found himself frequently coming to the island in pursuit of new species.

During one of these visits Koch notes his friend Peggy Manley mentioned there was no hair salon on-island, and asked, “Why don’t you bring one here?” So it was in 1988 that Koch did, opening the BeachComber — for its first year at Champlin’s Marina and eventually moving to his current location on Dodge Street.

Though initially open just during summers, Koch would return for one week a month and stay with a friend to “take care of local haircuts.”

Born and raised on a 100-acre working chicken, horse, dairy and vegetable farm in New Hartford, Conn., Koch did not find adjustment to small-town living difficult. He recalls his parents as very hard workers, noting “the chickens were shipped off to New York every Friday.” He says of his mother, “She was the Mary Donnelly of New Hartford.”

Koch studied accounting at the Northwest Hartford Institute, from which he earned an associate’s degree. Knowledge of accounting later served him well during his years in the Navy, which he entered after college. Stationed for three years in New London, Koch volunteered for service in Vietnam, where he was administrative assistant to the disbursement officer of South Vietnam.

Every two weeks, Koch says, he would join “pay teams that went right into the battlefields to pay the troops.” Often with bullets whizzing by, he would hand out envelopes.

After discharge, Koch returned home and entered beauty school, where he says with obvious pleasure that he “was trained by Paul Mitchell himself.” Soon after graduation, he established his own business: HairCraft by Mark in Rocky Hill. With many members of his clientele working for Pratt and Whitney, makers of aircraft engines, Koch coined the name of his shop to be a play on words — much as his current shop name is today because it has a maritime motif.

Challenge is housing

Very aware of the ecological concerns of the island, Koch made certain early on that all his products are water-soluble and biodegradable. The greatest challenge he’s faced has been what he agrees is one for all people trying to work and live on-island: “housing, housing, and housing!” For 10 years, Koch rented on the west side for $1,200 a month. Along with rental costs for his establishment rising regularly, these expenses created great financial pressure.

Though he says he is used to “living on a shoestring,” when he finally met the eligibility criteria for affordable housing, he was greatly relieved. He applied and after some initial delays and disappointments, he found himself approved for a home on the island — in the complex next to the Community Center. This change was significant for him, finally giving him a sense of security about living on the island.

Recalls the heyday

Koch speaks nostalgically of the “heyday of his business operation, the five or six years following the big Kennedy wedding!” The marriage of Ted Kennedy Jr. to Dr. Katherine Anne Gershman in October, 1993, highlighted the island as a wedding destination for many future brides and grooms. Consequently, throughout the rest of the decade, Koch said he would provide salon service for between 60 and 100 brides and their parties within a 90-day period.

These numbers slowly declined, particularly after the recession, so much so that Koch anticipates only doing some six weddings this summer. In addition to the national fiscal situation, Koch attributes some of the loss of business to the competition of hair establishments opening just for the summer.

He says, “You don’t get anywhere in the salon industry by jumping around. You have to put your feet down and dig in!”

In celebrating his silver anniversary in business on-island, Koch is offering a special: He will fix dry and damaged hair with wild ginger products from Paul Mitchell; along with the treatment will come a cut, blow-dry and take-home products — shampoo and Keratin cream rinse — also by Mitchell. Koch says it is a $300 value available for $90.

Over the years, Koch has built up a reputation as a gifted hairdresser who has offered the longest continuing salon service on the island. He is grateful for his patrons’ continuing support and for the many friendships he’s made while living here.

The phone number for the BeachComber is 466-5100. Please call for an appointment or check the sign out front for hours.

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