Barbers hip, traditional find place in Metro Detroit
Along a once-bustling Hamilton Avenue in a part of Highland Park on the Detroit border that the residents call "the forgotten end," there is a barbershop that has survived for more than 70 years.
Even as the surrounding stores became abandoned buildings, and the churches on the corner were the only places that remained open, Shep's Barber and Beauty Shop has been there.
"This used to be a very busy block. We had a convenience store, a cleaners, an apartment," said owner Dorothy Grigsby. "It's the only business left."
With the shop divided in half, with one side for the women and one side for the men, Shep's has become a sort of watering hole for the neighborhood. It's a place for community members to come, debate politics, discuss movies and TV shows and talk about the city they call home.
"I think our longevity is because of that," said Grigsby. "We're been here so long I guess they trust us."
Barbershops have always been a fabric of life in the Detroit area, becoming more than just a place for a haircut. The social component, as with Shep's, has fueled a number of successful businesses.
Now there is a new movement of hip and trendy barbershops coming to the city. The latest of these shops to join the fray is Fellow Barber in Midtown where co-owners Sam Buffa and Detroit native William Tigertt will offer upscale services at upscale prices, anywhere from $18 for a beard trim to $85 for a shave and haircut.
The 1,800-square-foot shop is in the same building as Willys Detroit on bustling Canfield. When it is fully operational, it will feature a second-floor bar. It's the fifth shop for the two men, who started the company in 2006 in New York City. They hope to capitalize on Midtown's boom.
"Coming out here and seeing the new movement of restaurants and shops, that sort of excitement reminds us of Williamsburg (in Brooklyn)," said Buffa. "People have the same opportunity here to do something exciting and new."
Buffa said he was inspired to open the Fellow Barber shops by trips to Italy with the U.S. motocross team. Once his competition days ended, he was looking for a way to make his mark.
"We're totally inspired by the barbershops of the past, especially in the look and the feel," he said. But, he also wanted to update the experience to make it "more for my generation." Buffa knows his clientele will probably be specific to Midtown, something that would separate him entirely from a shop like Shep's.
2 extremes in 1 community
The two shops are a microcosm for the city of Detroit. One is new, hopeful and idealistic, determined to capitalize on growth; the other is long-established, tried and true and still struggling to stay afloat while everything deteriorates around them.
It's a testament to these extremes that both of these shops exist within four miles of each other.
Shep's was founded by Grigsby's uncle, Richard "Shep" Sheppard in 1944 on Oakland Avenue. In 1965, he moved the operation across Woodward to its current location.
Even as the styles and the city have changed, Shep's has survived and adapted under the guidance of Sheppard's niece.
Deborah Stephens of Southfield has been coming to see Grigsby for 33 years. The retired Detroit Public Schools teacher is working part time and often comes after work to see the woman who has become a dear friend.
"We've known each other for ever. We're like family," said Stephens. "We visit each other's churches. I taught her niece and nephew."
Grigsby, who has been around the shop all her life but officially started working at it full-time in 1981 after Chrysler laid her off from her welding job, agrees.
"We grew up in this business," she said. "It just feels like home."
It goes beyond haircuts. People know when they visit Shep's they will find a clean place to use the bathroom, a warm, safe shop where they can sit and relax and occasionally get something to eat. They will also be kept in the loop of all the goings-on in the city, good or bad.
"Just last month, a neighborhood boy was shot and killed," she said. "People called the shop to find out the arrangements, because they knew if they had been decided, we would be the first to know about it."
In it for the long haul
David "Big Dave" Collins, 87, started his barbering career as Sheppard's apprentice in 1957, and is still at it. He says the key to longevity is to adapt to the latest trends, which is why the shop now has a woman who does braids and weaves on the weekend. And of course, to make the customer feel welcome.
"You have to treat them with respect when they come in," said Collins. "Be nice."
At Fellow Barber, Buffa has no intention of being a passing fad. He wants to build that same kind of customer following that Shep's has honed over 70 years. With a new shop, Buffa says, step one is simply to open the doors and get out of the way.
"It's the guys in the chairs that really create the community," he said. "We're not reinventing the wheel, but we're bringing our own spin on it."
And it's already begun. On the shop's soft opening Feb. 9, Midtown resident Aaron Brown happened to be walking by and decided to get his hair cut.
"This is a lot more convenient," said Brown, who usually goes to a salon in Novi. "The salon felt very foreign to me the first time I went in there."
Familiarity is important to a barbershop, as Grigbsy knows. Ultimately, she hopes Shep's will be remembered for the staff's compassion and community outreach. At one point, she considered moving to a busier area, but she didn't want to leave behind the people who were the lifeblood of her business.
After all, she says "a barbershop is more than a barbershop."