How African-American Salons and Barbershop Owners Are Balancing Their Culture With COVID-19

As restrictions lift, beauty businesses must figure out how to protect their legacy as a center of the black community.

African-American salon and barbershop owners and stylists Saved a Seat for their customers during the shutdown even as it threatened their livelihood, because they knew it was the right thing to do. Now that shops in many cities have been given the green light to reopen, it is no longer clear what is right and wrong.

  • How can owners protect the safety of their stylists and customers? 
  • Will it be mandatory for client’s temperatures be taken prior to being serviced?
  • How can they maintain social distancing rules while still booking enough appointments to pay the bills? 
  • Most importantly, how can they continue to give customers the high level of service and pampering they expect in a what has almost become a clinical environment? 

“For the African-American community, hair is more than just a matter of grooming, it’s our identity,” says Melissa Hibbert, a makeup artist and beauty & lifestyle expert from Los Angeles, California. “The business of beauty is always evolving and now, having clients electronically sign a protocol and service agreement and waiver when arriving for their appointments is a standard. To make up for any lost business due to limiting customers in the salon space, we have to get creative with our marketing and promotions: run service packages to guarantee clients will return; add on services like scalp massage or specialty haircare treatments; or expand salon hours and days and give extra incentives for Sunday salon services. Staying innovative will keep the beauty industry thriving as it reopens after COVID-19.”

African-American salon and barbershop owners must basically build the boat while they sail it, putting the future of the black beauty industry into question. And this is no small loss to the black community for whom going to the salon or barbershop is second only to church in important weekly destinations.

Most people are scared and using the words “essential” vs. “non-essential” to mean important vs. non-important,” says Yisrael Wright of Yizclusive Experience in Atlanta, Georgia. “The services we offer as barbers/stylists are for sure important because our clients visit us as much as church and more than they visit their doctor and dentist.”

Black salons and barbershops have served as more than a place to get a haircut or a shave since the 1800’s when they began providing a safe space where African-Americans could go to exchange ideas, learn new things, and celebrate what makes black culture unique. Today, stylists and barbers do more than just shape hair—they shape the culture one style at a time. As the official representatives of this space, owners and stylists are also in a unique position to set trends, spark conversations, and get customers excited about new hairstyles, music, fashion, movies and television, restaurants…and the list goes on. 

“Today’s beauty professionals have to rethink how they do business as owners and standing behind the chair. Says Najah Aziz owner of Like A River Salon in Atlanta, Georgia “We have to continue to pivot creatively during unprecedented times. During quarantine, I put together Quarantine Premium Survival Hair Kits. It’s a kit filled with hair products to help clients maintain their hair in between salon visits. My clients were desperate and I created a need. We sold over $50,000 in survival kits.  It has opened my mind to create an e-commerce business.  Being resourceful and having a skill will be critical in the times that we are living in right now.”

As salons and barbershops reopen, turning the chair is like turning into another orbit. Partitions have gone up between customers and their voices are muffled by masks, making it nearly impossible to engage in robust, spontaneous conversations. Waiting areas which once invited customers to relax and gossip are now gone, and clients must wait in their cars until it is their turn in the chair. Finally, clients that used to spend every Saturday at a weekly standing appointment catching up on the latest with their stylists are now unable to book those appointments. They may have to settle for bi-weekly appointments instead, if they can get those. Otherwise, they find that a waitlist has replaced the waiting room, and niceties like flipping through fashion magazines while sipping coffee or bottled water are gone and replaced by temperature checks and PPE. Figuring out how to rearrange salon chairs is one thing but figuring out how to rearrange the beauty and barbershop experience is a totally different story!

It’s the job of salon and barbershop owners to ensure that masks don’t muffle their spirit, because the salon experience is rooted in conversation and the interpersonal bonding that happens there. To survive, salon and barbershop owners must find ways to make customers—many of whom they’ve worked with for years if not decades—still feel important.

Barber Yisrael Wright says, “Most people will never understand that being open doesn’t mean you’re getting business. We took a huge hit as a whole, and we’re praying the new norm will give us more confidence & precautions to operate at the levels we know we can. We will for sure overcome, but it won’t be easy.”

In this new world, stylists are literally on the frontline of the frontlines trying desperately not to let face masks and plexiglass create a false barrier between them and their vital client relationships. They are also on the frontlines for other reasons too. Poor healthcare and underlying conditions mean African-Americans are more likely to have complications if they get coronavirus. Yet many African-American salon and barbershop owners felt pressured to reopen even when they don’t feel safe doing so because they were unable to access small business loans. This perfect storm puts black stylists at a high risk, and yet they face the challenge with an even stronger commitment to what they do.

“This is definitely our new reality for now,” says Loriane J. of In God Hands Beauty Salon in Madison, Chicago. “We’ve weathered the thickest, toughest part of the pandemic storm with just about everything that was once a privilege being taken away from us, and now we have come out of quarantine in the purest, most raw form accompanied by some sense of normalcy. We will move forward gravitating to what we know or wherever our spirit lead us. As women we like what we like when it comes to beautifying ourselves. So, as we continue to adapt and adjust to these new safety precautions in the beauty industry we will continuously & relentlessly stay optimistic that our industry will bounce back bigger and greater than ever before.”

African-American salon and barbershop owners and stylists are haircare heroes who continue to hustle and adapt to maintain a sense of normalcy in their shops and their communities. We should all be grateful to them for their commitment to their craft and community because without them, African-American men and women stand to lose a safe space and a symbol of culture that has carried them through some of the worst times in history. 

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