Featured The Hustle

“My own way:” Choya Woods and Melanin Beauty Bar look to connect community

Photo by Robert Chappell.

“Lies and deceit.”

What’s what brought Choya Woods to LaCrosse more than 20 years ago now.

She says that with a laugh, of course, as she’s become a full-fledged member of the community, raising four sons and establishing Melanin Beauty Bar at 701 Rose St.

Woods grew up in Chicago, but spent summers in Bangor, near LaCrosse, with her grandparents. She also frequently stayed with an aunt in LaCrosse. As a city kid, she didn’t like the “slow-paced country life,” but did enjoy the “freedom” away from the gang violence.

“Not as many bullets” in LaCrosse, she says.

Woods moved to LaCrosse for a few years in middle school, but returned to Chicago while Woods’ mom stayed in LaCrosse in order to better manage symptoms of the autoimmune disease lupus. By the time Woods was 20, she’d met her husband, had a child and was expecting another. She visited LaCrosse for Thanksgiving. That’s when her mom leaned on her illness to make a case for a change.

“I brought my baby and myself, just packed a few things, thinking I’m going to be here a couple weeks,” Woods recalls. “Then my mom said, ‘I’m probably not going to be here next year, and I would really love to spend some time with my grandchildren before I die.’ Once she spilled that on me, I was like, ‘So I guess I’m going to stay here.’”

That was more than 22 years ago; Woods’ mom remains alive and well, living in Onalaska.

As much as she jokes about her LaCrosse origin story, Woods is glad to be here.

“I have four boys. I would much rather raise them here than in Chicago,” she says. “It’s safer, in some respects. You don’t see that gang mentality.”

Woods got her first job doing hair at a shop at the mall – and it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

“I hated doing hair,” she says. “I didn’t realize I just hated doing hair there.”

So she tried being a full-time mom, which she didn’t love either. She started doing hair again, informally at home, and went back to school – which also didn’t work out due to financial mismanagement on the part of the school.

Eventually, she caught sight of a salon that had the look and feel of one she might want to open one day … and asserted herself until she got a job there.

“I stalked this woman,” she says with a laugh. “Finally, I handed in my application face to face. The interview took four hours. After four hours, she hired me on the spot. I quickly worked my way up to manager.”

In fact, she says she worked her way up to becoming the owner’s right hand, a position she stayed in for 10 years.

“Everybody thought I was the owner,” Woods says. Then one day she took a meeting with another small business in LaCrosse, and learned the owner’s right hand person had been in the same spot for 30 years.

“I sat with the (salon) owner and I said, ‘I love you so much. But that cannot be me. I cannot simply just be here with you for 30 years. So I’m letting you know that at some point, I will start to fizzle off and go my own way,” Woods remembers. “That doesn’t mean that I’m disconnected from you, or the business. I will always be a partner.”

And Woods did just that – went her own way – two years later, opening Melanin Beauty Bar on the 1400 block of Rose Street in early 2019.

“I called it Melanin because I believe in inclusivity,” she says. “Melanin is in all people. I wanted to name it one word that was for everybody.”

While she got off to a decent start, it wasn’t ideal. The neighborhood didn’t get a lot of foot traffic, and the shop was at the back of the building. So she found another spot just seven blocks up the street, and got a commitment from the landlord.

“It was completely gutted,” Woods recalls. ”There was nothing happening here. He didn’t make me make any payment until the day I moved in.”

This was early in 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic soon put a damper on everything. A Paycheck Protection loan kept her afloat, but the economic disruption of the pandemic made her move much more expensive.

“What I was quoted during COVID versus after COVID” for renovations was significantly different, she says. “This door was $1,100,” she adds, with a gesture toward a pretty normal-looking door to a back room.

Still, she was able to fully outfit the new shop and open in 2021. And she funded it all herself.

“I’m trying to go as far as I can without (bank financing),” she says, acknowledging that she probably would benefit from at least a line of credit. 

Now, after two years in the better location, she’s not taking on new clients, but is looking to hire another stylist or two. She’s also thinking about starting her own school to train the next generation. And she’s thinking a lot about connecting the Black business community in the area.

 “This year is probably the year I’m gonna focus the hardest on trying to build community among Black people in LaCrosse and the surrounding areas,” she says, noting that Black people in mostly-white communities can get disconnected.

“We’re all in survival mode, not realizing that what we need is each other,” she says.