How One Determined Brooklyn Girl Has Successfully Ridden Out the Pandemic
Although she was born in Guyana, a small country on the northern coast of South America, Shelley D’Aquino identifies herself as a “Brooklyn girl,’ an homage to the borough where she immigrated with her family when she was 11 years old. It’s easy to understand why. D’Aquino is a quintessentially scrappy New Yorker who never gives up. That indomitable quality has carried her through some difficult times since March, But as D’Aquino told the Insider, she has “pushed through” to find some silver pandemic linings. A major one arrived today: after almost losing her business, Le Parlour NYC Laser Spa in Manhattan, as a result of the COVID-19 shutdown, D’Aquino is triumphantly reopening. She shares her tumultuous pandemic story- protests, politics and the inner workings of a small business--with Insider readers:
You’re a longtime New Yorker, right?
I’m originally from Georgetown, Guyana. I migrated to the U.S. in 1977, and grew up in Brooklyn. Then I met my husband James in 1988 and we moved to Manhattan. And that’s where I’ve been ever since. We have two children, Eboni, who is 33 and Tyler, who is 24. Jim and I have been together for 33 years.
What kind of work does he do?
Jim is in finance. He went on to open his own recruiting firm. So that’s basically what he’s been doing for many years now, but we lived abroad for quite some time.
Where did you live abroad?
For one year, we lived in Amsterdam. We lived in Paris for one year as well. We also lived in Brussels. The very last stop of the travels was Australia.
How many years altogether did you live abroad?
I’d say that was probably three, four years abroad, moving around from place to place. Once you get started with that, it’s like a bug and you just want to like keep going. It’s like the ex-pat life. You meet so many people that are in the same genre of living and you became friends and everybody’s moving: “Where are you moving to next?” It was an exciting life, so, but then there are drawbacks to everything. You miss your family, you miss your friends.
How long have you been off the road now?
It’s been a while. Four years ago now since we left.
What was your life like just before the pandemic?
Three years prior to the pandemic I opened Le Parlour NYC Laser Spa. After traveling for awhile with my husband. I decided, okay, I’m back home, my kids are grown, what am I gonna do? I’ve always wanted to open my own business ever since. my family would say, pretty much ever since you
were like ten-years-old. I have a fashion degree. So I come from a fashion background.
Where is your degree from?
My degree is from the Tobe-Coburn School of Fashion. It was the equivalent back then to FIT. So it was always my dream to own my own boutique. I really loved fashion so at that stage of my life, I was doing a lot of editorial fashion shoots and I was on set a lot. But my life took on a whole different career. Then I went to corporate America, that’s where I met my husband. And, of course, we got married, had kids, and all of that. And I was a stay-home mom in New York City for a very many years.
Then after that, we traveled about, as I said. And we came back and then I started to get a bit antsy--what am I going to do with my life? Well, it’s my time, I want to do something for me now. The kids are grown, so my husband’s like, I’ll support you whatever it is you’re interested in doing. So I went to my hairstylist Megan one day. And she said to me, I’m moving, I’m going to be in this really cool setting, this really nice little environment. It’s a brand-new situation where you can rent out a suite and you can conduct your own business out of this suite. Right away I was like, where is that? I want to see it, this could be something for me. I had no idea what I wanted to do or what I was going to do. But I had such a burning desire to do something! She said, here’s the number, go over and have a look. And maybe some ideas will come to you.
So I went over to the space and it was still under construction. So I just stood there and it just felt right. I’m like, I don't know what I’m going to do here but I’m going to do something. So I started contacting people I knew in business and things like that. So the idea came that there was a woman that did my waxing. So I went to see her and she said to me you’d be an amazing business owner. She’s like, why don’t you and I do something together? She’s like why don’t I come over and I’ll bring my clients and we can partner and we can get started. And I was like, wonderful.
So every Monday we would meet and we’d talked about the business. We’d go over the plan. To make a long story short, when the time came, she bailed on me. So here I was in this room with all my dreams crushed.. And some would say I was crazy but I decided you know what? I’m gonna push through, I’m gonna figure this out and I’m gonna push. So I started hiring people and you know how that goes. You hire people, they don’t do the work, the job the way you would
prefer. Getting good help is a very difficult thing. Hiring good staff can be very challenging.
So then, a lot of different ideas came. Why don’t you do nails, there’s no one here doing nails. Do this, do that, do massages. So I did that for a while, I did nails and I did massages for a while and I did waxing as well. But we’re in New York City, right, and the rents are really, really high. How many massages and nails and waxing can you do to be able to pay that rent and then turn a profit? You’ve got to do a hell of a lot and when you're a brand-new business in New York, it’s extremely challenging. So it came to me one day as I was in service it’s like, okay, so you’re getting some people who are walking through the door. But you're not able to meet your expenses, turn a profit, forget about turning a profit, that’s not working out. So your problem is not necessarily the clients, your problem is you need to service something at a higher cost. So that you can meet your expenses and, hopefully, one day have a profit,
So I started thinking about those types of services. And then it just came to me--laser treatments. So I did a little bit of a research on laser and I found that people really loved laser because people were looking for a more permanent solution to skincare. And laser sort of provides that. So I was like, okay, this could be a really great thing. Skincare, I’m surrounded by hairdressers, skincare, people love to do skin as well. So it was kind of like a one-stop shop. You came there, you booked out several appointments, you got your services done, and you’re gone. So I loved the concept, I thought that could be something that could really catch on.
So I started doing every night all my research, talking to people, lots of reading. And I found what the best machines were, because if I was going to do this, I was going to do it and do it well. Of course, like everything else in New York City, there are tons of them everything. So what was going to make me different? So I decided I was going to offer a one-on-one service in treatment, very personal, very private space, the service where I myself would be looking for. So that’s what I decided to do. I hired someone who was the best, one of the best in the industry. And so we just set up our laser spa and we have had such great success with it.
I can’t I’ve made great profits because like any other business it takes a good three to five years to be ablet o do that. I wasn’t expecting to be rolling in money in three years. But I did expect that within five years, I’d be able to reap the benefits of all the hard work that I was putting in. So during – so right before Covid, we were doing well and by January we had really started to pick up quite a bit. I thought, okay, this is going to be a great year. This is going to be fantastic, this is the year that things turn around for Le Parlour NYC. And then came March, COVID happened and we shut down.
It was a week prior to the official mandatory closing for all spas. Every conversation by everyone who came in was about the virus. It was already circulating and people were already getting very nervous and very frightened. And people just started to cancel their appointments and I started to become myself very nervous about this. One day, Maya came in and we had two people on the books and they both canceled. And I said to Maya, you know what? I think today should be our last day for now. This virus seems to be getting very dangerous and nobody seems to know anything about it. I think it would be wise for us just to close our doors for a while. And just listen to the CDC and the news and figure out what’s really going on before we endanger ourselves and endanger our clients as well.
So Maya said to me, Maya’s the lovely woman that works for me. Maya said to me you know what, Shelley, I think you’re absolutely right. This seems to be something not going to go away right away as we would hope. So we closed on that day. It was March 13th that we shut down.
And so like everyone else we closed our doors and we came – I came home and we’ve just literally came home. I made sure lights were off, everything was turned off, and came home. A week went by, this virus is getting worse, more and more people are getting infected. It was not fading. The first week went by, and people were starting to get really ill, came late March and early April.
How was your own health?
I myself started to not feel very well in early April. I was doing a lot of cooking like everybody else in this shutdown. So one day my son says, Mom, can you make me a breakfast of bacon and eggs and so I’m like, sure. So I got up and I’m making him the bacon and I’m like I can’t smell this bacon. And I’m like, can you guys smell this bacon? Why is it I can’t smell this bacon? This is very odd. This is bacon, bacon lights up the entire house when you’re making bacon. I’m like, okay, I think I’ve lost my sense of smell. A day later I can’t taste. I’m like, oh my God, I think I have COVID!
So my husband and my son are like, are you serious, you can’t smell, you can’t taste? They’re getting freaked out . At this point, I’m like, yeah, I can’t, I really can’t. I can’t smell, I can’t taste. But even then I wasn’t panicked. I’m a very spiritual person. And when COVID happened, it was a time for me to go within, I was doing a lot of meditation and a lot of naam-ing. I belonged to something called Naam Yoga which is a lot of chanting and a lot of positivity. And so I’m like, this is an opportunity for me to dive into my naam spiritual teaching now. So I dived into that. I spent literally hours every morning chanting and Naam-ing and praying and so I felt grounded. I felt like I needed this.
I didn’t do the chants that in my head I knew I should do. I did what felt good, I did what felt nourishing to the body and the soul. So my son would come in and he’d be like, what is going on in there? You’re there for hours (laughs)--what are you saying, what are you doing? We’d laugh about it. And so at this point in time, everybody was sort of panicked and nervous. I did start to feel some feelings in my chest, it was never a tightening of the chest, it was more of a feeling like my chest was feeling fatigued. And I felt this just this feeling of fatigue in my body and my chest and I started thinking to myself, do I? Because I was in denial too.
Even though I knew I had lost my sense of taste and smell, I kept up, no, I don’t have this. This is not my story, this is not me. This is not for me. I’m a child of God, I’m only sending myself positive energy and I would pray and I would – so I didn’t tell my husband to be honest, about all the other feelings I was having. Because I knew he’d say, let’s go to the hospital now and that was the last place I wanted to be. So I did what moms and wives do, I hunkered down, more cooking, lots of baking. I felt like I wanted to get in touch with my ancestors a bit and so I started baking this traditional bread from my country, from Guyana. So I was just baking lots of bread (laughs), lots of bread like everyone else.
I was actually starting to feel better. I was doing some home remedies. There was something going around that the community was sharing about immune system builders– lots of lemons, sliced lemons with sliced oranges, and lots of ginger in a pot of boiling water. I would just drink cups and cups of that every day. And I started to feel better so I was obviously boosting my immune system so it was able to fight it off. So I was doing lots of those types of things and I had my family doing it as well. Because at this point, I’m thinking if I could have been infected, they’re probably infected as well. They were all drinking all of these types of things and decided we’re all going to just start exercising. So we were all going out. We live on a park so we’re going out for walks for an hour every day. And so I started to feel better, I started to just feel better and pushing through. So that passed.
I was never nervous about the business coming back. I always just figured, you go back, I open my doors and resume business as usual. All my friends at this point were calling clients, calling people, were freaking out in New York State about their businesses. But for some reason, I don't know, I was either naïve or I kept thinking, well, how hard could it be to just go back, your clients come back, and you open your doors and you resume, right? Seems like a reasonable thing to feel. But then I realized, wait a minute, this is just going on and on and on and there’s no end to it. And all of a sudden it hit me that my business is not opening. The longer this goes on, the more the possibility exists that I may not be able to afford to open my doors ever again.
So you’re paying what, rent and expenses this whole time?
This whole time, we weren’t paying rent. The guy who the owner of the space had put a freeze on our rents. So which was good, as anybody who owns a small business knows, small businesses never have any reserve. You’re literally going from month to month. And hoping and praying that your clients show up and they will walk through the door. It’s your clients that keep you afloat– that money is already allocated for – before you’ve even made it, right. So that’s basically how small business runs. And so I had a little bit of money but it was nothing that I could say start from scratch again with. So I was hopeful that this shutdown was not going to last as long as it did. So then all of a sudden, I realized, this business is going to be challenging to get back up and running. People are starting to lose their jobs, the uncertainty, the economy is failing, the uncertainty of everything is now starting to kick in.
So now we’re probably somewhere in May, between mid-May and the end of May. Just no one’s spending money, everybody’s losing their jobs. We would just get on Zoom calls, the beauty industry We did our little Zooms to touch base. We were all just mortified. Keeping each other abreast with what’s going on, did you hear, watching Cuomo’s briefings every day. I wouldn’t miss a briefing which was amazing and kept us very, very well informed. And so at this point, I’m like, okay, I need to figure out what I’m going to do. I can’t just be home doing nothing.
My girlfriend who owns restaurants in the West Village, a small little African restaurant that’s called Berber Street Food, she’s been up and running the whole time. They were feeding doctors and nurses. She rallied all of her friends and said, “I need you guys. How can you help me, I don’t have staff but I need your help so I need money, I need donations. I need help in the kitchen,” so I was like, okay, let’s do this. Let’s feed the front-line workers. So I got involved in that and donating with her and helping with her. So it felt good to be able to give back in that way. I also reached out to a couple of food banks in New York City that were asking for donations. So my husband and I, we’re like, let’s donate. This is getting really bad.
People are on lines, people don’t know how they’re going to feed their kids. I’m like, thank God we’re still able to be able to do that in our household. And we have savings and things like that. So we were okay. But the situation was getting very bleak and very dire, everyone you spoke with was just devastated in one way or another. It really started to take a toll on you mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually. That’s all you had as you were trying to just gather and make sure your family was safe. And my husband decided he was going to do all the food shopping so he would go out and do that and cleaning every day. I’m doing the cooking.
My son was helping out wehre he could. He had just finished his last semester of college. He goes to college in Brooklyn. So my daughter, she’s still living with her roommates. So she, yes, she was there and she was with them. And they were good. And I was in touch a lot, that was the hardest part not being able to see her because she’s already hunkered down with them. And you don’t really know what their lifestyles are – what’s really happening. And so I couldn’t see her, I couldn’t touch her, and it was really difficult for me. At this point in time, you're checking family, you're checking on in-laws. so we’re checking on the older people in the family, making sure they have what they need and things like that.
So you’re checking on your siblings, everyone. And then I have a few friends who I needed to keep a close eye on who I know are struggling with depression. And so you're like calling them out to make sure they come out and meet you and go for walks and keeping them, trying to keep them feeling
like these aren’t the last days. Because that’s pretty much what everyone was feeling like. Then, that passed. People were dying and that was horrific in itself.
Did you know people who got sick?
I knew a lot of people who were getting sick, not directly. But very close family members of mine and very close friends of friends that not only gotten sick but passed away. My sister belongs to a church in the West Indian community and tons of people died from this virus. So that was really sad, the minister actually passed away, and I knew her. My children were baptized in that church so that was really heartbreaking. And a very good friend of mine lost cousins, people would just called me--every day, it was another call. “And my cousin died in his sleep last night,” and I would just be freaked out by hearing these stories. It was just like, when is this going to end? Is there no end in sight to this? What is going on, what is this thing? So all of that heartbreak was happening. Meanwhile, as much as I loved my business I was just happy to be healthy and staying alive and all of my family and loved ones to be healthy.
Have you gotten involved in any of the political things that have gone on during this time?
Yes. All of a sudden as we all know, George Floyd got murdered, God rest his soul. And the day that that happened it was like a whole new world. It was like a whole new world, so we were all devastated. I mean, look--every black person in America knows what it’s like, we’ve all dealt with racism on some level, on some scale, so we’re not surprised about racism in America. What we were surprised about is that it has gotten to a point where you were able to murder a black man in broad daylight and act like you were just going for a walk in the park. And that was something, thank God, America was not willing to live with. And so we got really riled up, my husband, my kids, we got really riled up.
Did you go out to protest?
Yes. We started seeing the protests happening and being adults of a certain age in the midst of a pandemic, a virus. we’re like, okay, this is not very safe for us to go out and protest. But every day, I got more and more emotional. It was very interesting because all of my interactions with biases over the years with my own personal experiences started to come – rise up in me out of nowhere. I didn’t even realize I would start to feel this. But at the thought of that, crying and a lot of emotions and a lot of discussions with my family. And so we went through that period and then we all decided, okay, what are we going to do about this? In the age of Trump, people decided that they wanted a president like this who is in my views, in my opinion, a racist himself. I understand not everyone that is a Trump supporter is a racist per se, but Trump being a racist was not a deal breaker for them to vote for him. So that in itself is an issue.
My husband’s brother and his wife lives in Connecticut and they have two young daughters and my own daughter who lives in Brooklyn with her roommates at this point in time, were full on---full immersed in this movement. The girls and the guys are every day they’re protesting. So I have two young nieces. They’re 16 and 18. And they really wanted to stand up and get involved. They decided, like most young people, that they’re not going to tolerate that. That’s not the world they want to grow up in and this is not for their generation, this is unacceptable, completely unacceptable behavior. Thank God for the young people, right? So she was coming down to New York and they reached out and I said, well, my niece is coming to New York, I have to go out, I have to make sure she’s safe. We have to protect her.
So that was a really good excuse for me to forget about how old I was and that COVID was existing. So we all went out and we protested as a family and it felt amazing to be able to go out and for this amazing, amazing cause and this movement. And the energy! I have to say, I’ve never done a protest before, it felt like it was a dawning of a new day in America. It felt like this country will never be the same. And it was so moving. And it was beautiful, it was really, really beautiful. It was peaceful, it – people were just all there with one accord, one purpose, one vision. And it was just beautiful. So we did that, we protested and then I got online and I started signing petitions and posting and so we did as much of that, donating, whatever we could. Yeah, so we were very much a big part of that.
What do you think about Kamala Harris being chosen as the vice-presidential candidat? Was that meaningful to you or not particularly?
Absolutely, it's extremely meaningful to me. it’s meaningful on many levels: the fact that she’s a woman, the fact that she’s a woman of color. I think that this country has far, by far taken the African-American woman’s vote for granted. And I think they make up a huge part of the voting criteria in America. And I think our cabinets need to start reflecting first of all what we look like as a nation. This country is not made up of a bunch of old white men in suits (laughs). That’s not what America looks like. And so how can you have women’s issues at the table, black women’s issues at the table if we’re not represented?
We’re asking a bunch of men, first of all, to make decisions about women’s lives. And then we’re asking a bunch of men to make decisions about black women’s lives. In the black community, black women are in most cases, in most times, holding the household down. And we need to be able to see how we can support them and support that. And so these are issues that I think that are very, very important. And I think Kamala when she was running for president, I thought I like her. There’s a lot of things about her that I really like and I can get on board with. she’s very, very qualified and she’s a smart woman. And she shares a lot of the same values as most of –I had two choices, Rice was one of them and it was her. Kamala was my second choice. But I realized in the later days, I said she is going to be a better match for him that Rice. She has the personality that he needs.
Biden needs someone to be able to be strong and stand up to Trump. Absolutely. And Kamala is not going to take his bullying. After all, she is a Caribbean woman like myself. We’ve been raised with that vigor to stand up for ourselves no matter what. We’re known as the strong Caribbean woman. That’s how they categorize us. And we all come from really strong mothers and so, yes, it was very exciting to see her on the ticket. And I’m really, really looking forward to this election and all I want to say to people is get out and vote! You can go to a restaurant and take your mask off and eat, you can get on a line and stand for three hours if you have to, vote, get out and do it. Get out and just stand on a line as though your life depended on it because it does. Like Michelle said. Totally, as though your life depended on it because honestly, I’m frightened if Trump should win again. I’m not even just saying this-- I have anxiety about him winning again. This country, this great, great country-- it was always a great country. He didn’t have to make it great again. It was great and it will continue to be great,