The selling of an American rebel: Owosso barber markets his renegade story
Owosso — The crowds are gone from Karl Manke’s barbershop. Their money is not.
Manke, who is also a novelist, is selling books by the case, he said. T-shirts with his likeness are fetching $42.
Five GoFundMe fundraisers have received $88,000. A coffee mug proclaiming him “America’s Barber” may join the growing inventory.
When Manke reopened his shop in defiance of a state quarantine order in May, he traded one title for another. A mainstay of small-town America became the face of a revolution.
As the main foil to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, their fight could be billed That Woman From Michigan vs. The Barber From Owosso.
It made him a conservative folk hero, a darling of Fox News. It also made him, at 77, a budding mogul.
Manke, who described himself as a lifelong entrepreneur, said he is nonplussed by the support.
“Holy cow, it just overwhelms me,” he said. “I just opened my shop and all this stuff happened. It’s been quite a ride.”
Viva la revolucion!
Manke is loved or hated by legions of people who know little about him. Well, they know one thing and, in this political climate, that’s enough, say social critics.
His supporters believe the quarantine, imposed in response to COVID-19, is unnecessary. Detractors say he is helping spread the disease.
But there is more to the Oracle of Owosso or, as his enemies say, Covid Karl.
He is affable, self-deprecating, articulate, said friends. He is snazzy in dress and grooming. He has been married 57 years with grown, twin daughters.
“He’s a great guy, way outgoing,” said Mike Calhoun, a car salesman who knows the barber from church.
Manke is no political firebrand or, at least, wasn’t before all of this.
He was just a polka-loving, corny-joke-telling Michigan State University grad who has been cutting hair for 9 years, said friends. He still uses a rotary phone.
The accidental freedom fighter was a political independent who has voted for Republicans and Democrats for president. Yes, he voted for President Donald Trump. No, he didn’t vote for Whitmer.
A busy man
At 68, most people are adjusting to retirement. Manke not only continued to work but took on a second job — novelist.
He said he likes to stay busy, that he defines himself through his work. He feels like he’s wasting time if he’s not doing something productive.
He plans to work until the day he dies.
“Oh, my gosh, I couldn’t do it,” he said about retiring. “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”
Manke had different compulsions when he was younger. He has written about past struggles with alcohol and drugs.
He said on Facebook he spent the first half of his life in addiction and the second half in recovery.
“I’ve lived a colorful life,” he wrote in 2016. “I can’t help but marvel. There are elements (that), without providence, I never should have survived.”
He said he attended AA meetings twice a week.
He declined to discuss his struggles for this story.
As for his latest passion, Manke has written 10 self-published novels in nine years. Among their subjects are the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the 1960s' counterculture and the Purple Gang, who were notorious Detroit bootleggers during Prohibition.
He seems to spend as much time selling the books as writing them.
His barbershop doubles as a bookstore with his novels perched atop a glass cabinet whose window contains posters describing the books.
Before the quarantine, he traveled around Michigan on weekends and vacations, holding book-signings at bookstores. A store owner in Harbor Spring turned him down, saying he sounded like a huckster.
Manke said he has done well in Michigan but wasn’t satisfied. He wanted a national audience.
“In the true tradition of the shameless capitalist book hawker that I am, I’m trying my best to reach the other 300 million readers that have no idea what they are missing,” he wrote on Facebook in 2016.
He said the only way to make money as a writer was to be famous.
A quick trip to fame
When Manke reopened his shop on May 4, it would have been easy to do so quietly.
Owosso, which is 30 miles northeast of Lansing, is a small town surrounded by cornfields and soybean fields. Parts of the area seem untouched by the decades.
Its claim to fame is being the birthplace of Thomas Dewey, a Republican who somehow managed to lose the 1948 presidential election to Harry Truman despite being a heavy favorite.
Four days before Manke resumed working, his brother, Tom, heralded the reopening on his popular blog, which discusses Shiawassee County happenings. The blog post included an email from Karl where he compared the quarantine to advice from an overly protective parent to a grown child.
“There comes a time when all of us must take responsibility for our own actions,” Karl wrote. “I believe my time has arrived.”
Then, the day after the reopening, Tom Manke mentioned it again on the blog. He wrote that his brother had written 10 books, including one that may be made into a movie.
Meanwhile, in Dallas, the earlier reopening of a beauty salon in violation of that state’s quarantine had drawn a bounty of publicity and donations. A GoFundMe account, which was created the day before the salon opened on April 24, raised $500,000 in two weeks.
Manke and the salon owner, Shelley Luther, would later appear together at a press conference in front of the barbershop in May.
He told The Detroit News his decision to open wasn’t influenced by the conservatives’ embrace of the Dallas business. He said he needed to make money to pay his bills.
But some locals are skeptical.
Candy Higbee, who has lived next door to Manke for 18 years, said she thought he wanted to capitalize on the notoriety.
“It’s a publicity stunt for his new book,” she said. “Don’t believe for one second he’s standing up for your rights.”
It also has left him with some lingering legal issues.
On June 5 the Michigan Supreme Court rejected a court order closing the business, returning the case to the Court of Appeals. Separately, Manke’s attorney has asked a Shiawassee County judge to end the suspension of his license.
The attorney general’s office is mulling its next move. On Monday Whitmer allowed all barbershops and salons in the state to reopen.
A rush of customers
When Manke opened his doors, people flooded through.
They came from all over Michigan. A customer told him he had driven from California and would head back after the trim.
They said they badly needed a haircut. Some had tried to cut their own locks during the quarantine but made a hash of it.
Others said they wanted to meet Manke, shake his hand, pose for a photo. They told him he was a hero, a light in the darkness, that he walked with God. They didn’t like Whitmer or her quarantine.
Last week a man gave him $40 for the $15 haircut.
Customer Dennis Roper compared the shop's reopening to his service in Vietnam, saying both he and Manke were defending liberty.
“He’s a brave man,” he said. “I appreciate that he stood up for his rights.”
Roper, 72, who lives in Northville, said he made the 90-minute drive because he needed a haircut but also to show his appreciation.
Customers aren’t the only ones focused on Owosso. When journalists do stories about the quarantine, Manke is one of their first calls.
The renegade barber became emotional when he described the support he received from around the country.
He was walking to a rally in front of the shop in May when he felt someone tugging his sleeve. He looked down to see an elderly woman in a wheelchair, drenched in the pouring rain.
“I’m praying for you,” she told him.
Making the media rounds
The barbershop, which is a former two-story home in downtown Owosso, has changed a lot in the past month.
Last week a man took photos of Manke while he was cutting a customer’s hair. When a special agent with the Attorney General’s Office stopped by the shop June 1 to see if he was still defying a court order, the man took a picture of him, too.
Manke said the photos may be posted to his website or social media pages.
He said the photographer was one of three volunteers who began helping him after he reopened.
The volunteers, who declined to give their names, also help to coordinate many of Manke’s interviews with the news media. A recent day began and ended with appearances on Fox News.
When he was interviewed on the Glenn Beck radio program in May, he and the host discussed one of his books, “Age of Shame,” about two star-crossed lovers during the Holocaust. Afterward, he received a deluge of orders for the novel, along with other books.
“This is a whole new process,” he said. “I’m sending out books every day, cases and cases of books.”
The volunteers also recently overhauled Manke’s website.
One section, labeled Merch, offered T-shirts that read America’s Barber ($27) and Stand Up Barbers ($30).
If people bought one of the $20 paperbacks, several of which were out of stock, they would receive a free electronic book.
One novel, “Gone to Pot,” which describes the 1960s counter-culture, is described thusly:
“It is a daring view into the underbelly of the sixties and seventies.”
The website also asks visitors to donate to Manke’s legal fees. This is addition to the money he has received from GoFundMe.
In the background of all of this is a slowly rippling American flag.
The stylist's speech
As Manke has emerged as the face of the resistance, his language has changed.
He sprinkles his conversations and writings nowadays with words like “freedom” and “liberty.” His supporters are “patriots.”
Cutting a client’s hair last week, he became most animated when the conversation turned to the quarantine.
The customer explained he was getting a haircut because he was preparing to attend a funeral.
“Can you even have a funeral?” Manke asked.
“No,” said the client. “You just go to the cemetery.”
“My God, this is insane,” barked Manke, who then shifted his focus.
He said he believed Whitmer is trying to punish him for opposing the quarantine.
“It’s retribution,” he said. “A barber stopped her. A barber.”