“So, I’m getting married.”
“Why are you doing that?”
Both of the men saw the doe-eyed 21-year-old girl sitting behind them in the mirror and fell into whispers that couldn’t be overheard through the Top 40 Hits blaring from the boom box perched next to the entrance, a courtroom drama playing on one of two televisions and the buzz of the clippers—ever present in a neighborhood barbershop.
Barbershops are viewed as a place where men can be men. They can say whatever is on their mind and escape from the stress of work and family. As Larry Johnston of Floridatoday.com[i] explained it, “Barbershops are among the last bastions of manliness.” Johnston notes that men don’t bring up personal issues in the barbershop but Hubert “Q” Phillip, co-owner of Perfection Barbershop on Avenue C, gave a different impression, “So I would definitely say that the barber shop is a place that you can come be a man. Whatever’s going on in your life you can talk about it and not worry about somebody taking the conversation outside. It all stays in the barbershop. I feel like we have that kind of relationship, that kind of trust, we can confide and talk about stuff and feel like it’s not even a problem. It’s gonna stay in the barber shop,”
“We’re here to cut hair and that’s all we do,” said Phillip. The media occasionally covers the industry that remains the cornerstone to tightly knit communities. Like every aspect of the economy, barbershops have been affected by the global financial crisis.
According to Phillip, there isn’t much the media could do to have their voice heard. “I’m not sure if the media would make a difference in that.” However, he does have complaints of the stereotypes of barbershops perpetuated by the media. “Some people will affiliate the barbershop with any kind of illegal activity you could think about.”
Phillip has a point but it does not seem to be about the media as much as it is about the police enforcing certain laws and paying special attention to barbershops when doing so.
However, the media does choose to cover those stories that highlight the police’s concerns. In a recent online article from the Southtown Star, an affiliate of the Chicago Sun-Times[ii], it was reported that the mayor and city council of Country Club Hills passed an ordinance that would “prohibit groups of three or more from standing within 20 feet of an entrance to a commercial building.” According to the mayor Dwight Welch, this Professor-Umbridge-type measure will “’give a clear signal that that kind of conduct, those kinds of values, will not be tolerated in our community. We do not want drug dealing in our community.’”
The story also reported the opposition to Welch’s ordinance, as well as suggesting alternative activities for these young men accused of causing trouble in the community. “[They] need some type of job training, some type of place to go. We need the gyms open for them to play basketball,’” Ald. Leon Williams explained.
Phillip weighed in, “You standing across the street watching what’s going on on [the other] side, I mean, there’s a possibility you might see little funny moves but, then again, you gotta see where that person is coming from. Is he coming from [the] left? Is he necessarily coming out of the barber shop?”
Recently, an undercover police officer was planted in a barbershop in the Bronx to observe possible drug deals occurring in the establishment. He found no such illegal activity was taking place. Other undercover cops would come into the shop for a trim from him. “The hope was that they would buy marijuana, or at least witness transactions,” William K. Rashbaum for the New York Times reported[iii].
The only discovery the police made seemed to be that they chose an individual who was not very good at cutting hair in the first place. The story focused more on the cop’s lack of talent rather than the unwarranted suspicion.
This same story was posted on the websites of The New York Times, Gothamist[iv], NBC 40[v], New York Magazine[vi] and Bend Bulletin[vii]. Not one mentioned the assumptions made by the police regarding barbershops being hubs for drug activity. They all focused on the kitschy aspect of the police officer being a lousy barber.
Phillip called the media’s spin on the story “silly.” He proceeded to set the record straight, “Everybody that’s in here, we’re pretty serious about what we do. We don’t have that kind of crowd that’s hanging around.” Later he continued, “We’re all caught up in what we’re doing. I’m cutting hair, everybody’s cutting we’re not necessarily looking over our shoulders to see who’s doing what. Once again, for you to stereotype the whole barber shop, I don’t think that’s fair at all.”
According to Phillip, there are issues concerning this age-old business that are not discussed in the public forum. “For example I’ve been a barber for damn near 12 years and I haven’t seen a change in the prices since I started cutting hair. I mean, how is that even possible? I mean, don’t get me wrong, if you’re in a store and a lease agreement, your rent is actually going to go up 10% every year, on the high end—on the low end, 5%. That goes up every year so, if the prices stay the same then it’s going to hard for me to actually rise the rent or the percentage on each barber’s chair.”
Phillip does not think that there would be any kind of a backlash from customers, however, if prices were raised. He explained that with the base cost of haircuts at $12 most customers give him $20. He said that he would prefer the base to be $16 or $17 and receive $20, making his tip only $3 or $4. “I think we would get much further, ‘cause not everybody is going to give you a $20 tip.” Despite the fact that customers may not be upset by a possible hike in prices, it is an issue that faces this industry that’s deeply entrenched in stability and consistency.
The media should be putting a positive spin on the community hub that is the barbershop. Phillip concluded, “It would really be nice if we could get that positive energy back in the barbershop. And when you think of barbershops, you think about the haircut, and them going to a nice little comfort zone—away from the family, away from work, away from all the stress. When you come to you come to the barbershop, sit back, relax, get a nice haircut, have a nice conversation, and that’s about it.”