LAFAYETTE -- If hairdressers are therapists with cutting shears, then Karen Gaskins is Freud for kids.
Over the past decade, Gaskins -- or Ms. Karen, as she is known and calls herself -- has cut and styled thousands of Bay Area children. They come to Ms. Karen's Place in Lafayette from as far as Napa and San Francisco, settle into the yellow car chair in her closet-sized salon, and feast on lollipops and Sesame Street reruns, bending her ear as she snips.
"The kids talk to me about everything," says Gaskins, 57, of Concord. "They just run in with it."
Gaskins, too, is on from the moment they arrive. "'I say, 'How's school? Do you have friends? Are they nice to you?,'" Gaskins says. When the answer is no, she grows serious:
"Do you want Ms. Karen to come and talk to them?"
Gaskins has more than 400 regulars, from 6-month-olds to 16-years-olds. All word-of-mouth. She sees about 20 children a day, but is strict about no overlaps or ruckus in the waiting area. She needs the quiet to focus on the child in her chair -- and the parent.
"That's my destiny," says Gaskins, a single mom. "To love on one child at a time."
The kids like her because the tiny room -- no more than 100 square feet in the back of Beauty For You salon -- in which she cuts their hair is a condensed toy store, from the pastel-colored Tinkerbell mural to the buckets brimming with Hot Wheels, Pop Rings and balloons.
At the end of appointments, Gaskins gives each and every child a toy or treat, even the first-timers who fear the shears and cry, puke, scream or poop in her chair. There have been many of those.
Even then, Gaskins is loving but firm. "Consistency is very important," she tells the parents. "Some kids have gone elsewhere (for haircuts) and been traumatized so it's important to come back."
Parents like her because she listens. And, she takes great pride in her work and relationships.
Tiffany Shaver walked into Miss Karen's Place 10 years ago with a quivering lip and her auburn curly-haired toddler in tow. It was time for his first haircut and Shaver was more nervous than the 2-year-old. She wasn't ready to part with the baby curls.
"It was a huge milestone," recalls Shaver, of Martinez. "I videotaped the whole thing. I was crying and laughing and she made just as big of a deal out of it. She gave me a locket of his hair to keep."
And when the toy trucks no longer appeal, Gaskins still does.
Jackson Yeomans recently turned 13 and decided to go to his father's barber. It wasn't long before he went back to Gaskins. "They gave me a bowl cut," says the Orinda teenager, emphasizing 'bowl' and 'cut' with disapproval. "Ms. Karen gives me what I want. I'm not going anywhere else again."
His mother, Desiree LeClerc, says Gaskins treats her young clients as if they were her own kids.
"It's not just a job," LeClerc says. "She empties herself for those kids all day long. I don't know if everyone sees and appreciates it but everyone benefits from it."
And, in 2009, when Gaskins' brother, Jimmy, suffered a brain aneurysm and passed away, the community was there for her. Condolence cards flooded her salon and Lamorinda mothers groups appeared with baskets and food and hugs.
"They held me up," she recalls, her eyes welling with tears. "I'm so thankful for that."
Gaskins started her career in Lafayette 20 years ago, first at Cool Tops, and, later, at Cuts Unlimited. In 2004, eager to start her own business, she stumbled upon the tiny space for rent, hired a children's artist to draw the wall mural, and started shopping for toys.
"It became full and warm," she says. "This is my way of giving back."