Power Couple

Manayunk’s own husband and wife duo perfect the work-life balance.
By Leo Dillinger
Photos by Alexa Nahas Photography (alexanahas.com)

JD Korejko of Johnny Destructo’s Hero Complex and Su-Shan Lai of Starshine Salon share a unique love story. When they first met in 2003, Su-Shan had a styling job at her friend’s salon in Collegeville and JD was working at a Barnes & Noble in Montgomeryville while in between graphic design jobs. At the time, they were both in relationships and Su-Shan happened to be dating JD’s friend.

“I think we both thought each other was adorable,” Su-Shan said with a laugh as she recollected their first interaction. “But each of the couples we were in talked about how mismatched the other couple was, never thinking we would ever be a thing.”

But over the next five years, JD and Su-Shan’s lives took some unexpected turns. Su-Shan moved to Los Angeles with her boyfriend, where she opened her own high-end salon. JD found another graphic design gig at a marketing firm while working part-time at a comic book shop in King of Prussia.

Eventually, both couples wound up calling it quits and by 2008, JD and Su-Shan started reconnecting despite living on opposite ends of the country.

“I’m a night owl, so I would call her in L.A. because I knew I wouldn’t be calling her in the middle of the night,” JD said. “We would chat and I would check in on her to see what was up.”

In October 2008, Su-Shan visited Pennsylvania to surprise her grandparents for their 50th anniversary. She asked JD if she could stay at his house as “friends” and casually invited him to the party. After three and a half years in California, Su-Shan decided it was time to move back to Pennsylvania. Those early stages of being a couple are best described as “tumultuous” (their words, not mine), but their love persevered and they eventually moved in together. Just as they did back then, the two still bond over each other’s creativity to this day, with Su-Shan writing songs for JD and JD drawing illustrations for Su-Shan.

JD and Su-Shan were living in Lafayette Hill when Su-Shan started searching for a place to open a brand new salon. After looking in Mount Airy and Chestnut Hill, she settled on a storefront in Manayunk and by December 2012, Su-Shan officially opened Starshine Salon in its first location at 4456 Main Street.

“I just liked Manayunk the most,” Su-Shan said. “I thought the rent was reasonable and people naturally gravitate to where good food is, so being located along a great strip of eateries has always been useful to me. Plus I love to eat!”

“To this day, man, I love eating in Manayunk,” JD continued. “There’s so much. Too much! We work so late that it’s hard to get home and cook for an hour.”

“But we don’t feel too bad about it because we’re supporting other small businesses,” Su-Shan responded.

Things seemed to be going well for the couple by the summer of 2015. Su-Shan’s client list had expanded exponentially. JD left the corporate world and was working full-time at the same comic shop. Plus, the newly engaged couple had just started planning their wedding and honeymoon for October of that year. But life threw them a curveball and in an instant, JD was laid off from his job four months prior to their wedding.

“I always really enjoyed comics. Working in a comic shop always seemed like a dream gig to me,” JD said. “I had been working on and off at that company since I was 16, but I always had this idea in my head of having my own shop.”

Almost simultaneously, Su-Shan considered moving to a larger space. She proposed the idea of JD opening his own shop in her old location and that summer, just one month before their wedding, Su-Shan relocated Starshine Salon to 111 Grape Street and Johnny Destructo’s Hero Complex emerged onto Main Street in September 2015.

By the spring of 2017, JD and Su-Shan were both punching in ten to 12-hour days in their respective shops. Despite working three blocks away, the only times they’d see each other was when JD would skateboard over to Grape Street to bring Su-Shan lunch. They had also signed a lease on a garment printer that would serve as an additional creative revenue stream.

Although JD was fulfilling the bulk of the orders, the printer needed to be housed at Starshine since the lease was under Su-Shan’s more established business. The couple contemplated the future of their shops and the idea of merging them under one roof started to make more and more sense.

In April 2018, they signed a lease for 4327 Main Street and Manayunk’s first-ever salon/comic shop was born.

“There was a moment in the beginning where we were just exhausted,” Su-Shan said. “We moved to Manayunk last January to be closer to our businesses, not knowing this space would be available. Then four months later, we signed the lease for this space. We moved too many things in one year. 2018 was such a blur, but there are really good things in the works.”

Sure, having two unrelated businesses under one roof has its challenges. But for JD and Su-Shan, it’s been an incredibly positive experience. For the first time in six years, Su-Shan can finally schedule regular days off and rely on the support of her two other stylists. JD now has more room to display his collections and other merchandise, including a designated area for the garment printer. They also get to regularly see each other (even if it’s only for a few minutes at a time), which helps them get through those long work days. Now that they live in Manayunk too, they can walk to and from their shop every day.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the new location is the amount of client crossover they share.

“Being in this situation, it’s happening more and more,” JD said. “People come in for me and say ‘There’s a hair salon back there?’ Then some people that go through my comic shop to the salon, who I didn’t even know liked comics, will ask what I’m reading and pick up books on their way out. There’s this nice cross-pollination of customers and friends.”

Starshine Salon and JD’s Hero Complex wouldn’t be where they are today if not for their loyal regulars. With more than 1,000 clients, Su-Shan has people that travel from as far as Delaware, Virginia, and even California for a hair appointment. Meanwhile, JD’s shop has become the foundation of a supermassive group of friends that never knew each other prior to opening his store. The couple attributes their success to being welcoming, approachable, and listening to their patrons who walk through the door.

“Having a face-to-face conversation with a human being about things you’re passionate about is so gratifying,” JD said. “When people come into my shop, I try to check in with my customers and give them that experience.”

When asked how they like to spend their downtime, Su-Shan joked, “There is no downtime.” In addition to operating both businesses and the shirt printing, JD and Su-Shan both serve on the Manayunk Development Corporation’s Board of Directors. Su-Shan also works with North Light Community Center and the Manayunk Theater Company. JD does commission drawings, pet portraits, podcasts, and hosts a variety of weekly and monthly events both in his shop and at Sona Pub & Kitchen including Dungeons and Dragons night, Drink & Draw (with live model figure drawing), Board Game night, and a book club. They’ve even started a recent endeavor where Su-Shan styles a wedding and JD officiates the ceremony. So yeah, downtime is pretty hard to come by, but they’ll occasionally get the chance to catch a movie, read books, or go out for dinner and drinks on Main Street.

If you told JD and Su-Shan when they first met 16 years ago that they’d be married, living in Manayunk with their adorable cats, Durden and Kitto, and operating a salon/comic shop under one roof on Main Street, they would’ve called you “crazy.” But a lot has changed and they have become a true testament of those tired idioms like “hard work pays off” or “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

Not only are they masters of their crafts, but they are passionate about what they do. For JD, he wants to tear down the preconceived notions about comic book culture. It’s more than just superheroes. He strongly believes that comics are for everyone and if you tell him what kind of movies or stories you like, he’s sure to find the right books for you. And for Su-Shan, she wants her clients to know that self-expression does not require self-criticism. She’s always surprised by how styling someone’s hair can totally cheer them up when they’re having a rough day.

Even though they still feel like they’re getting settled as they approach their one-year anniversary at 4327 Main Street, they’re looking forward to continuously evolving their businesses and helping the Manayunk community grow whenever they can.

“We’re still getting organized here, but I hope this is the year we catch up and find a better work-life balance,” Su-Shan said. “That’s the first priority. I think one of the goals for moving in together is being able to help each other out more. We’re not quite there yet, but we’re getting there.”