Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Hillman’s is one of those shops that’s filled with so much racket it’s hard to tell where one haircut stops and another begins. On a Saturday afternoon, all the chairs in the waiting area are filled, and eight barbers work the two rows of chairs in the shop. Things quiet down for about a half-minute when the lotto numbers are announced on television, then quickly resume amid head-shaking and oh-wells.
“I started cutting hair in ’64,” owner Albert Hillman says. On the counter next to his supplies sits a handmade donation box for Mark Hillman, his 24-year-old son whose two-year battle with cancer has prevented him from working in the shop. The box’s kindergartenish design contrasts with the black, mirror, and chrome of the shop. It’s the only intrusion on the aura of prosperity Hillman naturally exudes.
“I got some good young barbers,” he says. He points to a slim, light-skinned kid across the shop. “Preston started as a teen. Preston, how long’ve you been here?”
“I don’t even remember, man,” Preston replies without looking up from the head he’s working on.
“Oh, come on. You a young man,” Hillman jokes back. “That one,” he says pointing to Morono “Boo” Hodge, “he taught himself. Got the book, studied it, passed the board.” But Hillman does a good amount of training, including passing his art on to members of his clan. His nephewTheodore Hillman officially, but RoRo to everyone elsehas been working at the shop since Hillman began training him in 1988.
“I always wanted to be a barber,” 24-year-old RoRo will tell you. “I started when I was 15. I couldn’t get a job in McDonald’sthey said I was too young. I was doing landscaping in the summer, cutting grass at the church. But in the winter, there wasn’t no landscaping…”
The Hillman legacy runs up and down H Street like an old taxi. It began with Albert’s grandfather’s shop at 1419 H St. NE, which opened in 1948. His father later moved the business down the street to 1401. Hillman opened a shop at 1381 in 1968, before moving to its current location at 1106 H St. in 1983.
Next to Hillman, an older gentleman works steadily away. Clarence Parson has been working with the Hillman family for 48 years. In his hand, he holds a 20-year-old pearl-handled “Goldedge” straight razor. He combs down his customer’s mustache, dabs on a bit of shaving cream, and then gently applies the razor to make a crisp sharp line. The whole routine looks deceptively easy. “Most of these young barbers don’t like to fool with the razor,” he says. He picks up a small outline clipper, tiny teeth on a slim three-quarter-inch blade. “This clipper here almost does what a razor does. Almost,” he adds. “But see, when I started barbering, we didn’t have nothing like this.”
Initiation to Saturday’s rituals comes early on H Street. Two-year-old Michael Myers can barely see the booster seat towering above him in the barber chair. “Come on up in this chair,” Hillman urges the shy boy. “I’m gonna let your mama hold this lollipop. That’s your lollipop,” he says, bending his 6-foot-4-and-a-half-inch frame down to the boy’s eye level.
“Not bald, but low,” Michael’s mother, Dianna, tells Hillman. The barber nods knowingly as the little boy sits atop the booster chair sleepily. Hillman’s huge hand covers Michael’s entire head as he gently holds the boy steady and begins to cut.
On the back wall of Fresh Cut Barber Shop hangs a faded photo of Malcolm X kneeling on a prayer rug. Beneath it a glossy full-color poster of bikini-clad calendar girls takes up lots of wall space. The holy and the profane hang close together at Fresh Cut.
Bernard Fernandez opened his North Capitol Street barbershop in 1992. Before that it was a clothing store, but before that it was a barbershop. In fact, it was the place where Fernandez got his first haircut, though he doesn’t remember much else about it. “I was about 8. I know there was an old man named Mr. Macomb who used to own it,” he says. Even though the memory is foggy, it must have made some kind of impression. By the time he was 13 years old, he recalls, “I would give haircuts to the other kids in the neighborhood for 50 cents.”
Magdalene Renfrow makes her way in a man’s worldfew women own shops that cater primarily to men. She’s also a master barber, a title she received in 1994 that allows her to show others the barbershop way. Renfrow got into barbering after she retired from her job at Walter Reed Medical Center in 1986. “My father was a barber,” she eventually reveals. “After working all my life, I had to do something.”
“I opened this shop right here on Sept. 11, 1993,” Renfrow says proudly of the shop that carries her name. Most barbers can tell you the exact dates they opened their shops, as if they were their children’s birthdates. “This counter came out of the old Union Station barbershop. This chair cost more; it’s all porcelain,” she says, indicating the rust-brown, black-trimmed DeZemler to her right.
Her apprenticeship was with Hillmanold-school all the wayover on H Street. And she’s just as old-school: born and raised in D.C. (“my mother’s from Hyattsville”) and a graduate of Eastern High (“best high school on the East Side”).
“I started working on getting my own shop right after I graduated from barbering school. I knew what I wanted. I started buying stuff and putting it in storage. Bought a chair. Soon as I finished my apprenticeship, I started looking for a place,” Renfrow recalls.
She’d like to get some young women working for her, “but they have to be experiencedand willing to work.” Renfrow remembers 10 other women in a class of 32 when she was in barber school: “As far as I know, I’m the only [female] who finished.”
Carroll’s Barber Shop is the oldest barbershop on H Street, probably one of the oldest still operating in the city. Seventy-five-year-old Stanley Carroll owns and operates it now. His father, Raymond Carroll, started the business in 1931.
“This is the only place I ever cut hair in,” says Carroll. “I inherited it from him, but I had to go to school and get a license. My grandfather was a barber, so it sort of came natural to me.” It’s not unusual to see several generations in the business, but Carroll may be the last one in his clan to take up the clippers. He holds up a picture of his four children: all daughters. “You don’t see no barbers on there, do you?” he says, laughing.
Carroll is the picture of the satisfied man as he surveys his little shop. Old Reliance chairs dating from 1953 stand sentry. The wood cabinets date back to 1946. His oldest customer, a 94-year-old regular, dates back to 1945.
Two-thirds of a century, and Carroll’s not looking to retire. “I work as I want to,” he says, admitting that he takes a day off when he feels like it. “We’re open five days, closed Sunday and Monday. I’m here ’cause I like it.”
John Norris, aka Nick, came by his loyalty to Joe’s Barber Shop and owner Joe Maggi early. “I went to grade school at Holy Trinity,” says Norris. “He was my guardian angel when I was in school. Some guys beat me up, and Joe went and kicked their butts. They never messed with me no more.” Norris is the most regular of all the regulars at the Glover Park barbershop, more sidekick than customer.
Norris is looking for a wife. Or at least a nice, buxom coed to pass the time with. “I like checkers. I like sports and girls. Of course, I believe in religion, too,” says Norris. “Tell ’em I’m lovable and sweet.”
“And full of bull,” adds Maggi.
Joe’s is full of all kinds of loud talk, but one of the chairs is on the empty side. A few other regulars come in, offering their condolences to Norris as they gesture toward the empty seat on the other side of the checkerboard, which used to be occupied daily by John Donoghue.
“Yeah, but he went out a champ,” says Norris of his longtime checkers mate. “He beat me three days in a row [right before he died]. He was born in ’17. He’d be 80 years old.”
Maggi and D.C. go back a long way. “I cut Clinton’s hair when he went to Georgetown. He used to eat lunch in the shop every day,” says Maggi. Maybe another future president is among his student customers from American and Georgetown, although some of his customers serve a higher power. “I had to hide the girlie magazines ’cause a lot of priests come in here from Georgetown University,” says Maggi.
In the back window facing the alley, Maggi keeps an old barber pole, circa 1936. He explains the significance of the colors, how barbers used to be local doctors. The red for the good blood, the blue for the venous blood, the white for the bandages. The top part symbolizes the rinsing basin. “Barbers used to give an enema, too,” Maggi says. “My dad’s boss back in Italy used to pull teeth. They say you could hear the patient yelling all the way across town.”
“I started working for my father in 1942. I was 14 years old,” says Maggi. “I’ve been cuttin’ hair continuously except for the time I was in the service.”
Joe’s is a museum to maleness, with a velvet painting of a bald eagle prominently displayed above the mirrors. “Moonlight Serenade” pipes in from the old AM/FM radio permanently set to WWDC 1260 AM and a droning TV without cable completes the dusty bachelor’s retreat.
A picture of Maggi’s dad dressed to the nines in a white suit hangs along with family photos spanning the decades. Barbering’s not the only tradition Maggi picked up from his father. One of nine children, he has done his bit to make sure the Maggi name lives on. “I have five kids, nine grandchildren. None of ’em wanted to be barbers. They all went to work for the government. I was the only dumb one,” he says with a smile and a shrug. “If I had known I was gonna be a barber all my life, I wouldn’t have gone to school.”
“That’s my son right there,” says James Spruill, pointing to one of the many barbers cutting away on this afternoon. “The one that makes all the money.”
Spruill’s family business is close to being a franchise. He trained his cousin, who now owns Powell’s Barbershop on Upshur Street NW, and his nephew, who runs Powell’s II on H Street NE. His own Blue Bird Barber Shop on Georgia Avenue is hopping as well.
“I’m from North Carolina myself. Came to D.C. in 1959. I got here, I didn’t have anything. Zero. I got a job at Elite Laundry. I was studying for my cab license while I was driving the laundry truck [during the day]. Some customers were telling me about barbering. That’s when a haircut was $2. I wasn’t making but $1.10 an hour driving the truck.”
Spruill did the math, and the rest is D.C. history. He was cutting hair across the street at a joint called Mack’s when he saw that this shop was for sale. “The owner told me it was sold. I was really heartbroken,” he recalls. “But the owner’s wife told him, ‘Honey, you’re gonna have to help this young man. He’s trying to make something of himself.’”
“I can tell what branch of the military a man is in by the way he describes his haircut and the way he holds himself,” says Robert Still, of Sneed’s Barber Shop on Capitol Hill. He has cut hair at the State Department and at naval headquarters. A civilian himself, he has 40 years of military hair experience.
Unlike most shops, Sneed’s is already closed by noon on Saturday because his clientele has very specific needs. “Monday at 4:30 a.m., we’re open,” he says. “Seven-thirty a.m., it shuts down right quick. Seven a.m., they’re all checkin’ their watches. They’re all nervous to see if they get out of here on time. They’ve got to get out to the line by 7:30.”
Military personnel get a break on cuts; during Marine parade season, when the few, the proud get two cuts a week, the price drops to $5. How does Spruill know someone isn’t trying to pull a scam? “We ask him and take his word for it.”
“Spotts? Oh, lawd! You wanna know about barbershops? Let me tell you about barbershops,” says Tyrone Duckett, a customer of Lloyd “Spotts” Howerton for the last 15 years. “You want to tell it or you want me to tell it?” Duckett asks Howerton.
“I want you to hold your head back so I can shave you,” the barber shoots back.
Howerton “inherited” his nickname when he bought a shop called Spotts at 14th and T Streets NW. Three years ago, he moved to his current location, 1301 Florida Ave., and the name came with him.
The shop may be 3 years old, but everything inside it speaks of decades past. Random old men surrounded by wood-paneled walls sit around on the motley assortment of chairs that fill the shop. Howerton’s teenage son is eating chocolate Zingers and gulping soda.
“I’ve been using the name ‘Spotts’ for 30 years now,” says Howerton.
“The reason he calls it ‘Spotts,’” volunteers Duckett, “is ’cause sometimes you get up and that’s what it’ll be,” he says, pointing to his head.
Ted Merrill leads the life of Riley compared with other barbers. “We have all the government employees within a three-block radius. And the hours are great. We work the government hours. They have 11 holidays a year, and I have vacation. Only open Monday through Friday. And no kids.
“I cut kids’ hair on Saturdays for 12 years,” Merrill explains. “I never understood why they charge less for kids, ’cause it’s twice as hard. They won’t sit still, and they cry.”
Merrill and a partner took over the Metro Style Shop 25 years ago. Above each barber chair, the wood-paneled arms of the lighting fixtures extend like the teeth of a very large wide-tooth comb. The mustard-colored chairs are more angular than what you’d see in most of the older barbershops. “They’re electric. The true electric chair,” Merrill announces. They were recently appraised at $4,000 to $5,000 a chair. A little vacuum cleaner is perched near Merrill’s station to pick up stray hairs. Next to it sits a small metal wonder called a LatherKing Junior. At the touch of a button, warm, creamy foam oozes out.
Merrill remembers the good old days of barbering, when more services were offered. His shop does have one old-fashioned amenity: a shoeshine stand. For $2.50, Leroy Taylor will give your shoes a memorable glow. He’s been at Metro for seven years and sees that his business is a dying art: “Used to be, years ago, on every corner you could find a shoeshine shop. Now it’s just a few.”
At 60, Taylor sports oxblood leather loafers that never lack for shine. A processed ‘do hangs down to his shoulders like the Godfather of Soul’s. And like James Brown, Taylor works the spotlight, too. “I sing gospel now,” he says. “But I used to sing rock ‘n’ roll.”
As for Merrill, he may be giving up his spotlight for something less strenuous. “I’m thinking about selling it. I want to work less. I’d probably rent my chair from whoever bought it. That way I could take care of my clientele, come and go as I please.”
The building at 3921 Windom Pl. NW has been a barbershop ever since it was erected in 1928. Camillo Damiano is the shop’s third owner. He came to America in 1963 from Abruzzi, Italy, he will tell you, and perfected the art of the straight razor. “A lot of people are afraid to use it, but if you want to get a good shave, we still use it.” His partner Joseph keeps cracking jokes. “I’m-a usin’ a razor! You makin’ me laugh!” he says between full-on hee-haws. His customer, who works at the movie theater across the street, laughs too, although his laughter seems a little nervous.
Eddie’s Hair Creations is beautiful. On the red-and-white checked floor, gleaming red barber chairs divide a row of clipper-wielding barbers dressed in kente-patterned overshirts. Israel Vibrations’ reggae sounds play on the stereo, and the CD is on sale right along with bottles of “No Mo Bumps” shaving powder, “Let’s Jam” styling gel, and “Sportin’ Waves” pomade. There are also incense, ginseng, and scented oils available. Lollipops for the little kids are a given.
Instead of the typical hairstyle poster full of poseurs and pretenders, Eddie’s walls feature 8-by-10s of customers modeling different looks. Celebrities come throughEmerge magazine editor George Curry, Mark Curry of Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper, B-baller Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell, and comedian J.B. Smoovebut they are just regular guys at Eddie’s. “Everybody is a celebrity,” suggests barber Barrie Jones.
Most barbershops have something else happening on the sidewhether it’s a shoeshine stand or a key shop tucked into the back. Eddie’s is no different, but the twist on the old tradition is global. Next to the sign advertising CDs for sale, another sign instructs people to drop off used sneakers here. “We’re starting a barbershop in Ghana,” Priel Ben Sar Uriel explains. “We’re asking people to drop off their old shoes. We sell them, kind of as a flea market, in Ghana. The proceeds go to opening the barber shop there.
“See, we’re going to train the guys for free. We’ll ship the shoes when we ship the [barber] chairs. Ten or more of these,” Uriel says, tapping the chair at which he’s steadily working.
Starting a sister shop in Ghana is the brainchild of owner Kofi Asante, aka Eddie. “I’ve been home twice [since moving to the U.S.]. I see little kids with a blade and a comb cutting hair. I want to help them….Next year we’re gonna fulfill the promise we made to them.”
The 41-year-old Asante has lived in the U.S. for 19 years. He went to barber school eight years ago after working in the computer industry, and two years later he opened his own business. His sights are set a bit higher than most small business owners’. “God wanted me to do that so I could reach my people,” he says with complete sincerity. “There needs to be unity between Africa and black Americans.”
Sounds like a lot to expect from a barbershop, but Asante is resolute.
“This is not just a barbershop. It’s a forum for people. It’s a place for us to show we can do it, too. We’re trying to set a standard,” he says, gesturing toward his own showroom of black entrepreneurship.
That standard applies not only to how he keeps his shop but to the barbers as well. Thirty-one-year-old Derrick Robinson, relaxing on the couch, says he’s been cutting hair half his life, though he’s only been working at Eddie’s for three years.
School had no hold on Robinson. “I was just a problem child. So you never know how things’ll turn out,” he says. “Hopefully, one day I’ll have my own shop. [Then] I can give other people a chance.”
Seven years ago, “God just hit me with it: ‘Make a career of it.’ So I went and got my license,” Robinson says. His conversion story isn’t quite as convincing as Asante’s, but it’s touching all the same.
Robinson met Asante through Jones, who met Asante through “a coupl’a friends.”
“I got tired of getting laid off a lot of jobs. Said I needed a trade,” the soft-spoken Jones explains. “I won’t never be rich, but it keeps some money in your pocket. And it’s a joy to hear somebody sayin’ they like your cuts.” He ruminates and examines his handiwork as he finishes working on one of the regulars. “Can’t please everybody, though,” he adds.
“Hey,” Robinson calls out, “ask him about the Reebok bag.” All the other barbers laugh. Jones demurs, shaking his head sheepishly and smiling.
Asante won’t give up the joke either, but there’s more where that came from: “Work in a barbershop, you’re gonna hear stories.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: James Watts.