“The dreads are kind of a spiritual thing for a lot of people,” says Sandy Alcini, owner of Grateful Dreads, a hair salon tucked behind a house on N. Fourth Ave. For Jamaican singer Bob Marley, whose photograph hangs in her salon, the combed and twisted curls signified his Rastafarian faith.

For others, dreadlocks are just a fun and different look. “I wanted something new,” explains Sedric Wilson, a soft-spoken twenty-five-year-old from Ypsilanti.

Wilson, who is biracial, has come for what Alcini calls “maintenance.” The stylist, forty-two, begins separating his hair into strands with a small tool, then pinning them back. Glancing frequently at a mirror to see the effect she’s creating, she back-combs, twists, and interlocks each strand, then adds extensions to form a carefully shaped spray of locks. The process takes a couple of hours, billed by the hour–Alcini recently raised her hourly rate to $70, “because my clients told me $60 was too low.”

As she’s finishing with Wilson, Mick Newsham arrives from Bay City and waits his turn. A big, white, former military guy who heard of Grateful Dreads through a friend, he has shaved his sides but has long top dreads that he wants spruced up. He has a stronger emotional attachment than Wilson to the look. Fascinated by his Irish heritage, he has studied depictions of Celtic warriors, some of whom wore their hair in dread-like styles. He also views them as a declaration of independence–his military family, he says, is “big on conformity.”

Alcini believes hers is the only salon in Ann Arbor that specializes in dreadlocks (Ypsilanti has a couple). Because dreads have traditionally been associated with African Americans, she says that some black customers, when they see she’s white, “say ‘No offense, but are you sure you can do my hair?'” She assures them she’s been trained and thanks them for trying her out.

She’s troubled that blacks and whites usually go to different hair salons. Determined to build an integrated customer base, she worked at an all-black salon in Ferndale. Though her boss enthusiastically welcomed her, she initially made other workers, and some customers, nervous. “I was nice to everyone,” she says, and eventually they became comfortable with her.

She says about 40 percent of her customers are African American, with most of the rest Caucasian or Latino. She’s also attracted a particular niche: adopted African American children brought in by white parents who, she thinks, sometimes feel shy about asking black beauticians about black hair.

Alcini remains sensitive to the politics of dreads. Arguments about whites “appropriating” an African style draw heat on the Internet. “This is such a loaded question!” Alcini says. She tries to keep the culture wars out of her salon–to make it welcoming and comfortable for people of all races and backgrounds.

Raised in Canton, Alcini fell in love with Ann Arbor on a visit in high school: for a couple of summers, she and friends sublet a house “for about $200” and lived here. But her route to the shop an alley off Fourth Ave. was circuitous.

Although she went to a beauty school during and after high school, she was restless in her twenties–dropping in and out of various Michigan colleges, and then traveling around the country, working at a variety of jobs (she remembers with particular fondness housekeeping for an Oregon ski/snowboarding lodge on Mt. Hood). Much of the time she wore her hair extremely short, but for a period she let it grow out and was intrigued when it formed chunky “natural” dreads.

Returning to Michigan around 2000, she ran into a Native American friend at a party. He had just had his dreads cut, and they had an intense talk. “The idea of putting in dreads was totally new to me. He showed me how to do it, and we did a guy’s hair together … I got a job at a salon and it’s like ‘I do dreads!'” Soon, anyone who asked about dreads was referred to her.

She’s worn dreads herself, but now usually keeps her thick, dark brown hair in an easy-to-manage ponytail. She used to wear eye makeup, but stopped soon after she and husband Greg Campbell (a Zingerman’s baker) became parents to Camellia, now six: as a toddler, Camellia kept trying to apply her mom’s mascara and eyeliner to her lips.

Alcini left another Ann Arbor salon four years ago to open Grateful Dreads. She found the space on Craigslist; her landlord is Kent Burkhart, whose late dad, Ben, set hot lead type in the building well into the electronic age. She bought a beautician’s chair at an auction, cleaned and painted, and was open within a month.

She has a handful of part-time assistants, including a Community High student who, she says, is a whiz at color. A licensed beautician, she can do many hairstyles, but it’s dreads that bring people to her door from Ypsi and Bay City. She says the work is a bit like crocheting: while the process can seem monotonous, it holds her interest because her clients have different ideas about the look they want–some want just part of their hair dreaded; others want color or to experiment with extensions.

Wanting Camellia to grow up in a diverse city was a main reason the family decided to settle permanently here; they rent a house close by the northwest side and raise chickens in the backyard. Recently in the shop with her mother, Camellia listened with interest when Alcini described Ann Arbor people as “smart and cool.” She chimed in, “Sometimes they’re weird!”

Run ragged with work during the holidays, Alcini is nonetheless pleased how her gamble has played out. Yet, she doesn’t rule out finally achieving her college degree–maybe in business. Her customers, who include many grad students, motivate her. “I like it,” she says, “that people are goal oriented here.”