Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Customers of Tommy Henry’s barbershop on Michigan Avenue in Battle Creek come in for haircuts, but they often walk away with job leads, solutions to a problem they’ve been having, or a better perspective on the world around them.
“This is a place for somebody to come and relax. They get kind of comfortable and they use you as a shoulder and just tell you everything,” says Henry, owner of Tommy & Company, Inc.
“I’ve had guys come in here and tell me things they’d never tell their wives.”
The barbershop, located in a former house in the Washington Heights neighborhood, was not doing well when Henry purchased it in 1988.
“When I bought this place, there was a crack house and two houses of ill repute in back of it,” he says.
Those illegal businesses were soon gone, leaving Henry with space to expand a parking lot that filled with customers before his shop opened for the day.
“I used to have 12 cars in the parking lot waiting on me when I’d come to work at 7 in the morning,” Henry says. “They’d be here at the crack of dawn and when you get a group of people in here you’re going to have different conversations going on. I’d have police officers sitting next to drug dealers. You were in here for a haircut and everyone respects that.”
Tommy Henry's committment to the community has not gone unnoticed.
The barbershop has gained a reputation over the years for being a safe, nonjudgmental place to hash over issues of the day while getting a good haircut. Henry says he works hard to maintain a clean, cuss-free space with a staff of six licensed barbers.
Barbara Coy, who has been a customer of Henry’s for more than 30 years, says she feels comfortable going there because of the atmosphere.
“A lot of places you go you might have to listen to profanity,” she says, “especially being a woman going into a man’s environment.”
Equally as important to her are the clean and sanitary conditions in the shop and the reputation that Henry has garnered for being community-minded and an example to others of what good business practices look like.
The many contributions Henry makes to the community were recognized recently when he received the “Businessperson of the Year Award” from the Battle Creek Senior Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at its 85th annual Freedom Fund Dinner Oct. 26.
Lynn Ward Gray, co-chairperson for the dinner and a Battle Creek City Commissioner, says Henry was selected because of his commitment to the community.
“His strong work ethic, business management skills, and willingness to mentor others make him a true asset in Battle Creek,” Ward Gray says.
Henry says he had no idea that the barbershop would become such an integral part of the fabric of the neighborhood and the city. But, he says, African American men, in particular, need to have a place they can go where their hair will be cut by professionals who know how to work with it.
Having access to a barbershop like Henry’s is important to business professionals such as Shabaka Wilson, vice president of Retention and Workforce Development for Battle Creek Unlimited.
“I can’t go to a place like Supercuts because they don’t know what to do with my hair,” Wilson says. “If I can’t find a place I feel comfortable going to, I’m not going to be happy.
“Talent wants to go to a place and feel comfortable. If you have a community of like-minded individuals, you’re going to get like-minded individuals there. You have to look at what you have available and barbershops are huge.”
Keeping people like Wilson happy keeps money in the community and that serves as an indicator of economic development activity, the movement of goods and services at a price for a certain area.
Wilson became a Tommy’s customer after seeing the business while driving along Michigan Avenue. “For the Washington Heights area, Tommy’s serves as this focal point for people within the community. It’s not a primary economic development tool, but an ancillary tool,” Wilson says. “You need to have the Tommy’s of the world to attract guys like me. It helps the city because there are people who need those services that are coming in from other areas.”
“I think it’s really important that they exist and are doing well and exist in accessible places.”
Coy, who lives in Washington Heights, said having Tommy’s in the neighborhood is a convenience for the people who live there.
“A lot of times the things that we need we have to go outside of our own environment to obtain as black people,” Coy says. “I just like the business being in that area. It shows that you can be in that area and be successful.”
The success of a business such as Tommy’s is an indicator of the “stickiness” of the demographic makeup of a community, or its ability to retain its residents.
“When you look at barbershops, and you also see stores that sell Spanish or Asian food, when you have those places authentically, that’s when a community is going to get sticky,” Wilson says. “Talent goes to where communities are sticky.
“When you reach a certain level of academic, professional, or economic status, you tend to change the neighborhood you’re in and your purpose for being in those neighborhoods also change.”
Wilson said the ability of a small business such as Tommy’s to survive demonstrates that there’s enough revenue going around in a particular area.
“With black men’s hair you can typically tell the way the economy goes by looking at the hairstyles,” Wilson says. “The better the economy is, the more likely people are to have jobs and excess cash that they can spend on haircuts. ... Black men need to get their hair cut at a minimum of every two weeks.”
The same is true for black women. Coy says she goes in every other week because she likes her hair to look good.
“I consider him to be a master barber,” she says.
Henry was born and raised in Battle Creek and attended a barber school in Detroit. After graduating in 1972, he said a got sidetracked “for a minute” and got back on track six years later. He married his wife, Julia and went to work for American Fibrit where he was a General Foreman and at one time was in charge of 1,500 people.
But, he always wanted to open his own business and the purchase of a pair of clippers at a garage sale launched his entrepreneurial ambitions even though it had been 15 years since he’d cut hair.
“I bought those clippers in 1988 and started cutting my relatives' hair because my nephews were getting butchered,” Henry says.
He got his barber’s license renewed and says the business has been very good to him. At its height, he employed 10 barbers and beauticians and says he was cutting a lot of hair.
“We tumble some real bucks out of here,” Henry says.
Despite a medical condition affecting his hands that limits the number of haircuts he can do on any given day, Henry still cuts hair and engages his customers in conversation about what matters to them. He says politics and religion are two subjects that aren’t discussed because there are too many denominations and too many opinions.
“The main conversation is on who’s still alive and who got sick last week,” Henry says.
The conversations are different with younger people and he says he thinks many of them lack the motivation he had has a young man. One of the most oft-repeated statements he gets from the younger set is that they wish they had the money that he has.
“They say, you got a lot of money and I tell them that they’ve got to get up when I get up and do what I do. They have to put something forth and they’ve got to go to work,” Henry says. “Anybody can do it. I was a C-minus kid in school.”
While on a recent visit to Tommy’s to get his hair cut, Wilson says there was a guy who came in and talked about how he’d walked off his job and how he hated the place and started complaining because he didn’t have any money to do anything.
“A lot of times the conversations are about venting, also about sports, and a lot of it is about work and maybe advice gets thrown around between patrons and barbers and suggestions of, ‘Hey, try this out,” Wilson says. “There is a mystique and myth that you go to a barbershop to get problems solved. It’s probably a little more of a place for entertainment instead of getting things done in smaller towns.”
Henry freely dispenses job tips on getting and maintaining a job and it's not unusual for customers to chime in about who’s hiring and where they should be looking.
On a more personal level, Henry thinks nothing of correcting a younger customer who he knows has been in trouble and he eschews dating advice in favor of talking to them about controlling their urges, protecting themselves, and being responsible.
“Some people ask me, ‘Should I do this or that?’" Henry says. “If I give them information to make the right decision on it, I have to be a good example. You can’t preach if you’re not following yourself.”
Southwest Michigan Second Wave’s “On the Ground Battle Creek” series amplifies the voices of Battle Creek residents. In coming months, Second Wave journalists will be in Battle Creek neighborhoods to explore topics of importance to residents, business owners, and other members of the community. To reach the editor of this series, Jane Simons, please email her here or contact Second Wave managing editor Kathy Jennings here.