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Regional Interests

The Beauty Bubble Brings Vintage Style to the High Desert

Read more from The California Report Magazine’s ‘Hidden Gems’ series

The sun-scorched desert terrain of Joshua Tree is striking, stunning and glorious. But local beauty isn’t confined to the national park. In this small high desert community, Jeff Hafler has created an oasis of style that’s part salon, part museum and all roadside attraction.

Welcome to the Beauty Bubble Salon and Museum.

It’s the kind of spot where haircare baubles — even grandma’s worn-out rollers — are revered as historical discoveries. 

Outside on Highway 62, the temperature is well into three digits. But inside the Beauty Bubble, it’s a cool and constant 69 degrees, with a strong chance of time warp.

Walk on in and the vintage hair products take you back to the decades of yesteryear. Hafler greets you flashing a photo-ready grin — part endearing host, part fast-talking emcee, part carnival ringmaster.

“You’re welcome to walk through the museum so I would start in the back. It’s my life’s work,” he says. “It’s thirty years of collecting back there. They call me America’s ‘hairstorian,’ now. Somebody had to do it!”

As a couple leaves the shop, he yells out, “Hair’s to ya!”

Jeff Hafler, founder, owner and operator of the Beauty Bubble museum and salon in his element. (Peter Gilstrap)

“I’ve got all my puns. I should have an animatronic version of me standing at the door,” he says. “Put in a quarter and I go through my whole thing.” 

Since 2004, Hafler has been the owner-operator of the Beauty Bubble, currently housed in a 1940s one-bedroom bungalow turned storefront. Floor to ceiling, wall to wall, the place is crammed with some 3,000 beauty care artifacts going back over 100 years.

There are vintage advertisements, framed magazine covers and unopened hair nets from the 20s and 30s with names like Bon Ton, Jac-O-Net and Pretty Miss. Outlandish wigs sit on sloe-eyed mannequin heads. Along with the portraits of Elvis Presley and Dolly Parton painted on black velvet are aging mechanical devices that look like instruments of torture. On a deco dresser, there’s a matching set of pink mirrors, brushes and jars with a note that says, “Marion’s dresser set from the 40s, found in Mom’s attic. Donated by her daughter.”

“Almost the entire time I’ve been collecting people have been donating these random beauty things to the collection, like rollers and clips and barrettes,” he says. “Someone threw a bag of rollers in the front door and said here’s grandma’s rollers! We didn’t want to throw’em away!”

Beauty Bubble is covered with vintage ephemera from floor to ceiling. (Peter Gilstrap)

To paraphrase Will Rogers, Hafler is a man who never saw a beauty item he didn’t like.

“That’s part of the problem. That’s part of the disease, right? I can’t say no!”

But that’s what makes the place unique. Included with your modern day cuts, colors and curls comes the sensory-engulfing overkill of it all, taking you on a journey to a bygone era of beauty care.

Beauty Bubble owner Jeff Hafler says he can’t say no when people donate items to his massive collection. (Peter Gilstrap)

“One of the most common comments is that it reminds people of their mother or their grandmother,” says Hafler. “I hear that multiple times every week. And I love that because I was close with my grandmother. I’m very close with my mother and you know, it’s true. I like old ladies trinkets.”

Heather Morgan, Beauty Bubble patron since 2017. (Peter Gilstrap)

Heather Morgan is sitting in a salon chair wearing a big smile and a platinum blonde pixie cut crafted by Hafler. She’s been a regular at the Beauty Bubble since she relocated from LA in 2017.

“There’s a lot of people in the desert who go out and rock their LA style,” she says. “So I didn’t have to change my hair or my style. I thought I would have to like, stop going platinum or become some old desert rag. But Jeff is out here paving the way for style.”

Hafler grew up in Pickerington, Ohio, just outside of Columbus, where he went to beauty school. Back then, he fell in love with a 1940s hairdryer — it’s still on display. That hairdryer sparked an interest in the vintage tools of his newfound trade.

“For that first year I was just collecting and decorating my bathroom with it,” he says. “And I thought, this is fascinating history. And this is beautiful, interesting stuff. So I was 20-years-old and I said,’ I’m going to make a roadside attraction, beauty parlor museum.’ And so here I am, 29 years later, I’m 49 now. And I’m living that dream.”

Colorful wigs are everywhere. (Peter Gilstrap)

In 2004, Hafler and his husband, jewelry designer Mikal Winn, bought a home in Wonder Valley, a dot-on-the-desert-map thirty miles east of Joshua Tree.

It’s an unincorporated land of rough dirt roads and endless horizons. And it’s such a rural part of San Bernardino County that home salons were, and are still, legal.

“I had the ‘high society of the high desert,’ is what I call them. Business owners, retired artists, Hollywood actresses. And we live next to a pretty large Marine base here and I would get the general’s wives and officer’s wives. I mean, you name it!”

Those early clients have stayed loyal. But here in Joshua Tree — where Hafler moved his salon in 2015 — a steady stream of tourists and locals wander in to gawk at the display.

But these days, Jeff Hafler is not styling any new heads. He’s turning his focus to selling his vintage items and curating his ever-expanding museum.

“Since I turned my lobby into a gift shop, it’s doing so well that I don’t have to cut hair anymore,” he says. “And I was ready to stop. I’m going to maintain a handful of dear clients that I’ve done for 17 years. But I have three incredible stylists that rent the chairs, so we’ll still have hairdos down at the Beauty Bubble four days a week.”

And Hafler is taking his trinkets on the road.

He had a recent show at the SFO Museum at the San Francisco International Airport featuring vintage beauty items, and the sculptures he creates from discarded hair care ephemera. And there’s an upcoming documentary about the Beauty Bubble. And if that weren’t enough, Hafler even has plans past that.

“I dream about building a geodesic dome and making it look like a giant hairdryer, like that blue hairdryer up in the corner. So the beauty museum would be housed in the world’s largest hairdryer. It just has to happen.”

Like the miles of hair that got him here, Hafler’s dream in the desert never stops growing.

Copyright 2021 KQED