How Black Barbers And Stylists Are Preparing To Reopen

"If we do not open up by the 30th of [May], I will be doing hair in my house. At this point, we have no income.”

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“This was supposed to be the big bang,” Shari-Lyn Banks, owner of the Chicago-based beauty parlor Salon Sevhn, told me over the phone recently. “This was supposed to be seven, seven, seven,” she continued, hammering home what was supposed to be a fortuitous digit. She has been a professional hairstylist for seven years, named her shop after the number, and planned on officially celebrating the fruits of her labor with a grand opening on July 7 following a successful soft launch last fall.

But then the coronavirus outbreak brought life in the US to an abrupt halt, and thousands of business owners across the country were forced to shut down operations due to stay-at-home orders. Even though social distancing has been an effective way to flatten the curve, working-class people have been certainly feeling the financial strain the virus has caused. And business owners like Banks are beginning to consider other options in order to earn some cash amid the ongoing crisis. “To be honest, if we do not open up by the 30th of [May], I will be doing hair in my house,” she said. “At this point, we have no income.”

Though some states have already begun reopening, the US has largely been on lockdown for three months, and many people are still facing difficult decisions with no easy answers. With the federal government’s bungled response to the virus and each state implementing its own plans for reopening, Americans have to figure out how to keep themselves — and their families — safe. Mark D. Levine, New York City Council member and chair of its health committee, in a lengthy Twitter thread recently, rallied for new guidelines that make sense for this current phase of the pandemic. “Let’s give people the tools to understand that the riskiness of social activities lies on a spectrum,” he wrote.

Naturally, part of resuming normal life would include going back to our former grooming habits — be they regular visits to the salon, barbershop, or massage parlor. But there’s a divide between people who view these activities as unimportant and those who see their personal upkeep as an essential part of life. (“We’re all on such a level playing field. If anyone out there is looking good right now, they’re an anomaly,” a stylist told the Denver Post last month.)

No matter how frivolous it may seem, there are people who have had a difficult time adjusting to their quarantine look. “People dealing with mental-health issues deeply tied to appearance can face physical and psychological stakes higher than those who have never dealt with similar problems might realize,” wrote Amanda Mull in the Atlantic in March. But as is the case with most things, the topic of grooming in the age of the coronavirus isn’t necessarily clear-cut, and this is especially the case for black business owners in the beauty industry.

Few black and Latino business owners have been able to access loan relief through the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, which has devastating ramifications for the legacies and communities these spaces have fostered. This is something Khane Kutzwell, 48, owner of the queer-inclusive, Brooklyn-based barbershop Camera Ready Kutz knows all too well. She’s been rejected from the PPP three times, mainly because all the barbers she employs are independent contractors. “Why am I not getting any money at all?” Kutzwell told me over the phone. “But yet these big businesses like Chick-fil-A who are still in business, they're getting loans.” It doesn’t help, Kutzwell said, that her landlord is still demanding that she pay rent for the establishment, even though it must be closed.

Kutzwell, who has been cutting hair for 11 years, began her business out of her home when LGBTQ friends were turned away or mistreated at other shops. She, like other black barbers, has had an impressive impact on her community, raising money every few months to help individuals pay for top surgery, rent relief, and more. Always one to be “proactive instead of reactive,” she’s been able to stay afloat during the pandemic because of a GoFundMe campaign, which she started to give her employees a brief reprieve from making their booth payments (In order to work in a barbershop or hair salon, stylists typically pay a weekly fee for chair rentals to the store’s owner).

Black queer spaces are already limited, and the pandemic will likely cause many to shutter for good, though Kutzwell said she is determined to reopen on June 1 unless shelter-in-place orders are extended. The realization that these barbershops are in such a precarious position cuts particularly deep for me, being black and gay. Though I don’t go to a queer-owned barbershop, my barber and his colleagues aren’t the typical anti-gay haircutters I’ve been introduced to countless times over the course of my life. We talk about politics, sports (though I don’t have much to add in this area), and pop culture, and they try to set me up on dates or ask me to befriend their other queer clients.

Black business owners have fostered an irreplaceable community in barbershops and beauty salons over the years because there are still very few spaces where black people can unwind. “An identity less afforded to the barbershop is how intimate and vulnerable of a place it can be,” wrote Jason Parham in a 2017 essay on the restorative experience of going to the barbershop. “The hiss of clippers clicks on, and your head suddenly becomes a canvas — it is the barber as sculptor and as counselor.”

“The salon is the most foundational image I have of black beauty,” Taylor Bryant wrote in an essay for Nylon in 2018. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but being surrounded by boisterous, free-willing, confident black women helped me grow into one myself.”

Dennis “Denny Moe” Mitchell, 54, owner of Denny Moe's Superstar Barbershop in Harlem, has been cutting hair since he was 14 years old. The shop he owns has been operating since the early 1980s. Because he hadn’t yet received his stimulus check, Mitchell started a GoFundMe campaign to try to sustain the business while it’s shuttered; he has raised more than $17,000 of his $25,000 goal. “I’ve been getting my hair cut at Denny Moe’s my whole life and one day I wanna be able to bring my son to this shop,” one donor’s comment read. Another comment read: “Denny Moe has always done great things for the community. We need to do everything we can to keep his shop in business.”

“My community is heavy into me and I am into my community,” Mitchell told me over the phone.

These community spaces are facing new challenges over how they’ll draw in customers wary of getting sick and how to sustain their shops once they begin to reopen — especially since business may not immediately be booming once shelter-in-place orders are fully lifted.

“At this moment, I feel like everyone is desperate to get back into the chair,” Banks, Salon Sevhn’s owner, told me, speaking for both her staff and clientele. “If we have to work longer hours to accommodate, we will. And definitely if we have to work seven days a week, we will.” But what Banks isn’t quite sure of is whether her salon can operate at full capacity to bring in the revenue the business would need in order to thrive. Salon Sevhn operates with 15 chairs and just as many stylists, who are all independent contractors with experience ranging from 15 to 30 years in the business, and who pay Banks $300 a week to rent their spot. “So if you do that math times 12, you already know what I’m missing out on.”

Like many others within her industry, Banks is already accustomed to dutifully disinfecting materials used on clients. She said the only big difference about how she will operate moving forward is her requirement that both customers and staffers wear face coverings. “No mask, no service,” she added.

Customers across the country can probably expect similar changes at their local salon or barbershop for the foreseeable future. “I’ve made a whole lot of changes, man,” Mitchell told me. “First of all, the doors are going to be locked, and we’re going to buzz people in. For two: One parent to a child.” Along with these measures, he said, he’ll use a steamer to fight off the virus (though experts are divided on how effective this is), and he’ll require attendees as well as his fleet of 10 barbers to wear masks while allowing his staffers five minutes every two hours to breathe in fresh air outside.

Clients who come early for appointments will be required to wait on newly installed benches outside the shop or in their car. Asked whether he will limit how many people can be in the shop at a single time, Mitchell pushed back. “I'm not going to allow them to do that to me,” he said. “I'm not gonna allow them to say, ‘Oh, you can't have so many barbers [working at one time].’ Excuse my language, fuck that.” He said his chairs are already 4 feet apart, and he’ll move them an additional 2 feet to respect social distancing protocol. “So if everybody's working at the same time, there'll be 20 people in the barbershop,” he added.

“How long are people gonna donate, you know? Everyone is in the same position.”

Mitchell’s stance could easily be seen as risky, but his choices are part of the tough decisions business owners across the country are having to make. “Being able to financially sustain this pandemic is only one part of the problem,” Kamal Nuru, owner of Levels Barbershop, which has seven locations in New York state, told me. “The other thing is, how will the clientele feel? Will barbers lose a lot of clientele for fear of them transmitting COVID-19? Are people that usually come in once a week or every other week now coming in half that time? Are barbers going to be able to make enough money to pay for their chair, and am I going to be able to make enough money to pay for the overhead to run the business?” If barbers are working half the time, Nuru added, it will be harder for entrepreneurs to maintain their businesses in the long term.

Being able to pay rent is a major concern. Mitchell, who estimates he’s lost about $20,000 since having to cease operations in early March, said his landlord is working with him and allowing him to push rent payments back, though they will still eventually want the full amount lost during lockdown. He added that he applied for a Small Business Administration disaster loan about two months ago; though it has not yet been approved, it could provide him with $10,000, which he said would help tremendously with the financial strain. Nuru added that he’s been “a good tenant” and hopes that “any reasonable landlord is going to forgive some [of the money owed], or maybe let you pay it off in increments or tack it on to the end of your lease. I'm sure no one is that foolish to think that they're gonna get that money straight up.”

Banks is worried about paying her son’s college tuition, which she said she’s not able to afford right now because of her lack of income. Both Banks and Mitchell expressed concern about whether some of their staffers who pay booth fees will ultimately choose to continue working from home, pocketing the fees they would otherwise be shelling out. Because of how dire these times are, both said they would understand. Kutzwell said she was mainly able to have a successful GoFundMe campaign both because of the contributions from her community and signal-boosting from people in the Broadway show West Side Story for whom she provided haircuts. She worries that the longer the pandemic continues — and the more Americans continue losing their jobs — the harder it will be for folks to keep their favorite small businesses afloat.

“I'm still in debt,” Kutzwell said. Although the GoFundMe campaign has been helpful, it hasn’t been enough to cover all expenses she has incurred. “How long are people gonna donate, you know? Everyone is in the same position. People are just being very nice ‘cause they like my business. They like what it stands for.”

Online, you’ll find plenty of evidence of how much customers miss their barbers, while others, using a slightly NSFW photo, conveyed the ecstasy they will likely feel when they get to reunite with their hairstylist or barber. It’s not simply about vanity — it’s about connections, some of which have been going strong for years, if not decades.

“For us, in particular, it's like a therapy session,” said Marcus Venice, 28, owner of Venice Braids in Houston. “When my clients are here, I don't know what may have happened prior to them entering this door, but I need to make sure that this experience is the best experience that they've ever had. I need to make sure that they're the most at peace.”

The relationships spawned in these small businesses can also lead to kinships. “It's a family,” Nuru, who opened his first shop in the late ’90s, told me. “Because not only do you become close to your clients, but some clients become close with everyone in the shop. Some clients become close with other barbers’ clients. It's a friendship.”

He added that there are regular customers who come on the same days, see the same faces, and often continue conversations from their last visit. “People are depressed, and people come into the shop to relieve themselves,” Nuru said, adding that not getting groomed regularly can take a toll on a person’s mental health. “It's definitely a relief that people feel when they come and get a fresh haircut. They feel good. They look in the mirror. They feel confident. And people are missing out on that.”

Mitchell, who has raised thousands of dollars from his fundraiser, is perhaps the best example of what could be lost if the pandemic were to wipe out hordes of small businesses. He often throws philanthropic events for his community in Harlem, with biannual initiatives like Cutting for a Cure, where barbers provide free haircuts for 48 hours while attendees can be screened for medical conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes. Mitchell, who has also provided scholarships to young children in his community, hosts summer barbecues, doling out free food for as many as 300 to 400 people who show up. “They feel my presence in the community. No doubt about it,” Mitchell said.

Though it seems more barbershops and salons will be opening in the coming weeks, reports of a looming second wave of the virus occurring in the fall takes up space in the back of Banks’ mind and what that would mean for her business in the long run.

“So I'll be open for what? Two months to close again? I don't know what to do, to be honest,” she said. “I've always been a positive person, and in my mind, even though I thought about it, I just didn't want to go there.

But right now, her main concern is getting back to work. She’s hopeful that things will be somewhat normal by July, united with her fellow colleagues. “I think there is a sense of community that people come to, you know, congregate and fellowship and come together and talk,” said Banks, speaking of the special bonds formed in shops and salons. “It’s home.” ●

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