December 8, 2023

You wouldn’t guess from looking at the warmly lit, orderly store that Vienna’s Merle Norman Cosmetic Studio is about to turn 70 years old.

The beauty and skin care shop will hit that milestone this Friday, Sept. 1, making it the town’s second oldest business to still be standing — after the Money & King Funeral Home, according to store owner Sharon Holland.

Anticipating that many potential attendees will be out of town for Labor Day weekend, Holland is planning to throw a birthday bash on Saturday, Sept. 9 instead. From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., there will be food, champagne, games with prizes, store-wide discounts, and giveaways, including an offer of a gift with any purchase.

“It’ll be a lot of fun,” Holland said. “We usually have a lot of fun at our events. At Christmas time, we have an ugly sweater Christmas party, which always is a big hit, so that’s a lot of fun too.”

Established in 1953, the Vienna franchise of Merle Norman Cosmetics first set up shop on the west side of town before relocating to Danor Plaza when the shopping center opened in the 1960s. It has occupied the corner suite at 401 Maple Avenue East ever since, according to Holland.

The business came into Holland’s life through her marriage: her husband’s mother bought the store from its original owner in 1971, and she helped run it until they sold it to a friend in 1986.

During that time, the pair added a Merle Norman franchise in Fair Oaks Mall, and in 1990, they expanded further with a store in Centreville that lasted 25 years.

On Sept. 1, 2015, the same day that the Centreville studio closed — a decision influenced by her mother-in-law getting older and repeated rent increases — Holland brought their journey full circle by re-acquiring the Vienna location.

“We bought this one back, so it’s back in the family, so to speak,” Holland said.

A user of Merle Norman products herself, Holland attributes the Vienna studio’s longevity in part to the loyalty of “Merle girls” — as the company calls its regular customers.

Founder Merle Norman developed “Three Steps to Beauty” — a cold cream, Miracol lotion and a power base — while studying medicine and chemistry in college, according to the company’s official history.

After initially planning to sell the cream, a deal killed by the 1929 stock market crash, Norman instead opened her own store in Santa Monica, California, in 1931 and saw such success that 94 studios were in the works by the end of 1934.

Still owned by Norman’s family, the company has stayed true to her practice of letting customers try its makeup and skin care products for free before they make a purchase, Holland says.

“We’re not pushy, you know. We let you decide what you like, try it if you like it, that’s great. If you don’t like it, that’s fine too,” Holland said. “…Sometimes they come in and just chat. It’s a safe place for women to come, and yeah, they just like it. They like coming in here and the personal attention that they get, and you make friends. We make friends with all of our customers.”

However, given that it’s currently the only one in Northern Virginia, the Vienna studio also owes its success to the local community, which Holland describes as “very supportive” of homegrown businesses.

Holland says she meets just about everyone in town, since Merle Norman serves as a drop-off point for the packets that the Vienna Business Association assembles for new homeowners. The VBA also hosts regular mixers that foster an atmosphere of cooperation, rather than competition, between businesses.

Looking forward, Holland hopes to expand her business’ reach, particularly to a younger audience. In the past, she saw mothers bring their daughters into the store almost as a rite of passage to teach them about skin care, but that tradition has faded, “which is a shame,” she says.

In addition to the forthcoming celebration, Holland is using the studio’s 70th anniversary as an occasion to give back to the community that has kept it going for seven decades now. The store has been collecting menstrual pads and tampons for the local nonprofit BRAWS.

“There used to be almost 20 studios in the Northern Virginia area, and we’re the last one standing,” Holland said. “So, that alone, it’s pressure because people are like, ‘Please don’t close,’ and it’s like, well, I don’t plan on it. But it’s an honor to be able to still be here and still help these people, and they’re friends. They’re all friends. They’re wonderful ladies and men that come and enjoy the product, so I’m happy to be able to be here to help them.”

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