I've been going to the same nail salon right down the road from me for many years.

It's a family business owned by a Korean woman.

When I first started going to the place, her two teenage daughters used to come in to help out when they weren't in school.

Eventually, one went to law school, and the other got a graduate degree in science. A couple of years ago she got married, and last summer had her first baby.

All the clients have celebrated these life events with the family, asking after the girls when they are not there, peering eagerly at pictures of the baby, because a nail salon is kind of like a family.

The warm family feeling is spread over the clients too.

Everyone who works at the salon says hello and calls me by name when I walk in.

I know about their children and they know about mine.

They all say good-bye when I leave, and I have to admit that their affectionate adieus make me feel good.

Before I started going to this place, I was uncomfortable in nail salons.

I didn't have a manicure until my wedding, and my first pedicure was in my 30s when I went to a spa.

It seemed like too much trouble to have my nails done when I had to make an appointment and pay a hefty sum, especially since I didn't think of myself as a manicured kind of person.

I just didn't feel like I fit in.

That all changed with the advent of the corner nail place.

You didn't have to make an appointment, and you could get a manicure for the price of a lunch.

I started having my nails done regularly.

The nail salon has become a part of women's social lives.

I love to listen in on the conversations around me.

There are the people who come every week. Their conversations with the manicurists contain updates on their current events.

What college a daughter got into.

How a friend is faring with a recent divorce.

The problems with a grandchild.

Nothing is held back.

It's as if we all forget that others can hear us in these intimate conversations. I've been guilty myself.

I often encounter people I know at the nail salon.

They may be people I don't see frequently, and we while away the time waiting for our nails to dry exchanging news about our jobs, our husbands, our children, and any common acquaintances.

Sometimes I leave the salon and am appalled at the details I disclosed.

It's like I was drunk and spilling my guts to a bartender.

Nail-salon appointments have become bonding time for mothers and daughters.

Daughters of 13, 14 or 15 -- who might not want to be caught dead hanging out with their mothers -- seem perfectly happy to accompany them to a manicure place.

My own daughters will often suggest that we get "mani-pedi's" together when they're in town. Sometimes we can't even sit next to each other and talk, yet there is still a nice feeling of solidarity in picking polish colors together. I welcome the chance to get their approval of my shade!

When I was at the salon today, there was a mother there with her three little girls. She seemed like quite a low-key and down-to-earth woman.

She also seemed extremely worried that she would be judged for bringing her kids to have their nails done.

I admit that I was tending toward judgment.

Manicures have been a symbol of luxury, of a lifestyle in which a woman had the money to be pampered and the time to spend taking care of herself.

I've been reluctant to see myself as a regular patron of these services, and there is certainly something distasteful in training children in that kind of behavior.

I have found myself looking askance at the mothers having yellow flowers painted on the nails of their 5-year-olds.

This woman must have the same mixed feelings because she felt the need to explain herself. "It's not that I think little girls should have manicures," she said. "It's just a great way to spend the afternoon. And it's the only way I can have my nails done."

I felt sorry for ever feeling critical.

She and her girls were having a good time. And what was wrong with having some paint put on their nails?

I realized that our low-priced neighborhood salons have democratized what was once a luxury to the point that it is no longer something for the wealthy and pampered.

There are ordinary people in the salons. I've seen nurses, retirees, teenagers, school teachers, and office workers. Most people that I know and work with get their nails done.

I smiled at the woman and her adorable kids. Everyone was chatting with the children. The manicurists had given them lollipops. A good time was had by all. And our nails looked great too.