If you walk into Currie's Barber Shop and Salon at 432 Harriet St. in Ypsilanti on a typical weekday morning, you're likely to find owner Edward L. Currie sitting in his barber's chair like a king on his throne with his customers, friends, and neighbors arrayed around him, watching TV, snacking on donuts, and drinking Nehi soda.
After 50 years in the business, Mr. Currie doesn't do a lot of barbering, only cutting the hair of a few old regulars. But his barbershop remains an anchor in Ypsilanti's Parkridge neighborhood, the only barbershop on the South Side to have survived urban renewal in the city.
"Ypsilanti is a good city," Currie says. "I used to know everybody in the neighborhood, almost everybody in Ypsilanti. But things change, and you have to change."
The longest-operating black-owned barbershops and salons in Ypsi and Ypsi Township are continuing a rich tradition of doubling as neighborhood gathering places, each with its own flavor.
A history of black-owned barbershops
The tradition of black-owned barbershops serving as community gathering spaces is one that Ryan "Griff" Griffin, owner of Griff's Unlimited Cutz at 880 S. Grove St. in Ypsi Township, says goes back to the time of emancipation as the Civil War ended.
"Being a barber was one of the first jobs that ex-slaves were able to do, once emancipation hit," Griffin says. "It was an easy business to set up, and barbershops were always one of those places we could go to and be who we are, among our own, and not worry about, at that time, racism or discrimination within the walls of the barbershop."
Currie's is the longest-running example of this type of community-building in Ypsi-based salons and barber shops.
Ypsi resident Cherisa Allen, who grew up on Harriet Street, recalled Currie's crucial role in her childhood years during a recent Ypsi Storytelling Night sponsored by On the Ground Ypsilanti.
"Currie's barber shop, where everyone knows your name," she said. "You want to find out something about Ypsilanti? Come on in. You want to talk to your friends? Stop on by. You want something to eat? Come on in. Mr. Currie and his friends always had something good for you."
While other local barbershops and salons participate in formally structured programs from mentoring youth to feeding the hungry, Currie's approach is more relaxed. It's a place where neighbors can stop in to chat, and a regular group plays whist together after hours every Saturday night.
Mr. Currie doesn't cut children's hair anymore, but he supports youth in other ways, including allowing a group of Ypsilanti Community High School students to paint a mural of Dr. Henry P. Jacobs, a former slave turned doctor, educator, and legislator, on the side of his building in 2015.
He also co-owns C&H Community for Funerals (formerly Lucille's Memorial Chapel) in addition to the barbershop. He is the third-generation barber in his family, with his father and grandfather both owning their own shops in Tennessee before the Currie family moved to Ypsi in Edward Currie's youth.
Entrepreneurship and charity work go hand-in-hand
"My father and grandfather told me, 'You should always have something for yourself.' I tell anyone going into business to own your own building," says Currie, who indeed owns the building that houses his shop. "Otherwise, rents can become too high and you can't afford it, and there are a lot of restrictions (on what you can do with the building). You have to own to be successful."
Griffin, who has been a barber for more than 22 years, first off Hewitt Street in the city of Ypsi and now at his current location in Ypsi Township, also encourages the younger generation to be entrepreneurs. He says he doesn't care if either of his sons go into barbering, but he encourages them to own their own businesses.
"It's not about barbering. It's about self-employment, learning to be self-sufficient, and being a job creator," he says. "I always advise kids to be job creators, not employees."
At the same time the business owners are looking out for themselves, they are also looking out for the community.
While Currie's and Griff's are one-man barbershop operations, Finesse 1 Salon is a bustling full-service salon that contains several small businesses under its roof. The salon at 500 Congress St. in Ypsi has been a staple in the Ypsi hair scene for over 30 years. Owner Shawn Green and his wife Hala cut hair, and the salon is managed by Green's sister, Rania Samaan. A nail tech and eyelash tech work out of the same building, and another woman sells her hand-crafted jewelry from a case in the salon.
Additionally, two barbers rent chairs at the salon, including former business rival and pastor Larry D. Davis, who owned Hallelujah Salon just down the street for over 20 years.
"Competition doesn't always have to be in negativity," Green says.
Finesse 1 staff participate in a dizzying array of charitable projects, including handing out meals at Thanksgiving, meals and toys at Christmas, and backpacks for children in late August; and making room in the salon for the Queen's Closet, a free clothing program for female victims of human trafficking, run by Donna Manning. Owner Shawn Green also participates in a local mentoring program for at-risk young men called Brother to Brother.
More informally, salon staff build relationships in the community and provide a safe place for long-time customers to talk about their troubles.
"We don't consider them customers, but family," Shawn Green says. "We often have prayer in the salon, or take time out to celebrate with customers. We've helped people who couldn't pay the rent or fell behind in their car notes. I'm a minister, and I've also performed marriages for several of my customers."
Griffin's charitable projects include running a bottled water drive for Flint residents and participating as a mentor in the Brother to Brother program. He also started a "Read to Your Barber" children's literacy program several years ago and spread it to other local salons and barbershops.
Griffin puts a lot of stock in positive black role models, and the walls of his salon are covered with posters of Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Barack and Michelle Obama, Coretta Scott King, and Betty Shabazz. For the literacy program, Griffin has a bookshelf stuffed with books centered on positive portrayals of black people, from a Little Golden Book based on the movie Black Panther to the children's picture book Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman.
Griffin says participating in charitable efforts is a "no-brainer."
"This is where I live. Why wouldn't I take action?" he asks. "I'm not the type to wait on a politician or a politician's promise, or to wait for something good to trickle down. If kids are in need, or even adults, (taking action) is what I'm going to do."
Griffin says many barbershops and salons easily survive economic downturns because spending time in fellowship with others at the shop is something people need even more in hard times.
"The economy doesn't really affect us. This is still a place of healing, a place where people come to feel better about themselves," Griffin says. "When you get a haircut, you feel better about yourself. People still keep their schedule of getting their hair cut, because it's worth taking care of yourself."
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She has served as innovation and jobs/development news writer for Concentrate since early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to Driven. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.