Working: Tracie Thanh

By Patrisha McLean | Jul 04, 2009

Rockport — Tracie was a 21-year-old manicurist in Boston when she decided to open her own business. A client told her, “Maine is beautiful,” so “I drove all the way to Caribou along Route 1 looking for an environment that you fall in love with,” she said.

Rockport fit the bill, but the building she could afford wasn’t as lovable. “To cover up the flaws I went to Wal-Mart and bought a lot of flowers, vines, garlands,” Tracie said.

The theme of the nail salon and the name that naturally followed, Tropical Nails, are a sharp contrast to Tracie’s early life.

“We were boat people,” she said, describing the mass exodus from Vietnam after the war, in makeshift boats across a treacherous sea. Her family’s second escape attempt landed them in jail when she was 3 years old. On their third try, they washed up on an island. After being rescued by fishermen they endured stints in a detention center, then refugee camps in Malaysia and the Philippines.

Peace, if not prosperity, finally came when Tracie, her parents and a brother and sister located an American sponsor and settled in Boston.

Every inch of their apartment was taken up with cloth and designer labels. Eighty cents was the pay for assembling a jacket: “My little brother could sew a straight line down the side," Tracie said. "I would run the shoulders then pass it to my mom to do the zippers.”

Tracie ran one of the family’s three sewing machines in between her job at a nail salon and psychology studies in college. She quit school to become an entrepreneur when the family needed money. “I said it’s my responsibility to help them,” she said.

A decade later, Tracie’s sister and brother, sister-in-law and three cousins busily pamper customers with facials, manicures and pedicures, applications of makeup, fake nails and fake eyelashes, and artful nail designs -- including the occasional lobster on a tourist.

Her goal of placing her family on a secure financial footing realized, she takes classes in real estate and is also thinking about working with children. She still keeps a hand in the salon though, polishing the nails of regular customers and traveling frequently to Boston with each family member to keep up on the latest beauty products and services.

Still, she said there are some things one can only learn on the job. “In school, they say if you file this way it won’t tear the nail and yes, that’s true, but it takes forever and doesn’t look right.”

“People come in all different shapes of nails," she said. "Some are very full and curved, some very flat. Some have a lot of cuticle, some it is barely there.” She has learned to customize the acrylic-based formula for fake nails, according to a person’s particular nail type. Polish too, for instance recommending matte for customers with ridges on their nails because pearl accentuates the flaw.

Tracie doesn’t use nail strengtheners because she is in the lucky group “born with very healthy strong nails.” She also doesn’t use any of the hundreds of colors in her salon, and neither do any of her female relative employees. “We’re constantly taking nail polish off people with acetone," she said. "It would take ours off too and it would look nasty.”
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