by Troy Landrum, Jr.
“It’s time for a cut, my man.”
On the weekends that I stayed with my dad when I was a kid, those are the words he said to me every time I stepped into his car. Those weekends were full of excitement, but the most consistent experience was our time at the barbershop. The memories that we made in the barbershop have stayed with me well into my adult years. They have shaped me and taught me many lessons. I believe the most important lesson I learned is this: to find the right barber is to find a friend. Someone whom you can trade ideas and experiences with, someone who will become part of a sacred sustaining culture that will be here for you, your children, and eventually, their children too.
The Barbershop is a symbol of empowerment, opportunity, and community, especially for Black folks. The Black and Tan Hall Green Book states, “While the earliest Black-owned businesses had to cater to whites mostly by necessity, as the community grew it became increasingly possible to sustain businesses which catered to Black clients … In time, Black-owned barbershops and hair salons catering to African-Americans became community cornerstones just like they were — and are — across the country.”
With that context, I now have an understanding of my people’s ingenuity and power in the midst of great opposition. Assessing the needs of a community and making themselves indispensable is the soul of an entrepreneur. For Black people who chose the path of being business owners, their drive came out of necessity. They knew that the only way that they were going to make it was if they created the path for themselves. That spirit has been passed down from generation to generation and that resilience shows itself as we continue to live through a global pandemic.
During these past two years, businesses have closed, jobs have been lost, and uncertainty and death have wreaked havoc throughout communities of color and under-resourced areas. Throughout this process there has also been joy, birth, rebirth, and a critical lens on what justice looks like for our country — more specifically, focused on police brutality against Black lives. Through this process of reconciliation and chaos I believe it is important to purposefully look toward Black joy and Black entrepreneurship. When we focus on the ways in which our communities are thriving, we can stay hopeful and hungry to work toward our goals.
One person who particularly embodies these things is a local barber from our very own South End: Michael Smith, Jr. In the beginning of this year, Smith packed up his liners and his razor from South Seattle’s legendary barbershop J Styles and set off to make his own way. He cut hair at J Styles for close to nine years and was one of the most sought-after barbers at the shop. Known for his patience, technique, precision, and his constant effort to get better, Smith made a home at the barbershop and was one of the longest-standing barbers cutting at J Styles. After all the years of experience and memories, he always knew it was his dream to eventually own his own shop. After years of contemplation and the foundational support of his wife, Jayna Smith, he knew it was time to make his dream a reality:
Mike D’s Grooming Lounge at 3250 Airport Way S. in Seattle.
Smith’s grand opening on February 1 of this year didn’t come without grit, doubt, and a steep climb. At the start of the pandemic, J Styles, like most businesses in the country, closed. “It was a hard three months. Even after we opened back up, things weren’t like it was before,” says Smith. A lot of workers and business owners could likely relate to that feeling at that point in time. During the closure, Smith didn’t have the luxury of working from home. Whatever he had saved up until that moment was all he had. He lived in the uncertainty of not knowing when things would open up and worrying about all the clients he had built a lasting relationship with. The craft that paid the bills was no longer available to him. Smith had to hope, survive, and buckle down to figure out what he wanted for the future. His dream was pure: he would make a space of luxury and beauty for his clients , even when the world would try to beat them down. No matter what was going on in life — a pandemic, racial tension, rough times at home, a job interview — he wanted to provide a place of refuge.
The first three months of the Pandemic became a catalyst for him. It was now or never. Going back to work after the shops began to reopen gave him a structured timeline for his departure from J Styles; he was able to sit in his thoughts and really think about how he wanted to move in the world from here on out. “For me personally, I took that time to rebuild and restructure how I wanted to do things. Before it was cut fast, cut fast, cut fast. But … I want excellent quality work every single time somebody sits in the chair. If that means I make less money, then that’s what it’s going to be,” Smith said.
In the eyes of many, Smith’s work speaks for itself. The evidence of that is his tenure in the South End, which totals up to about 12 years of high-quality barbering. It says so much about the levels of professional craft to put out great work for so long and still crave another level of perfection. So many years of putting in the work, studying under the local barbers and pillars of the South End community such as the owner of J Styles, Jameel Shabazz, and Mr. Willie Hodge of the barbershop formerly called Hodge’s Hair Quarters, helped cultivate a knowledge in Smith of who he wants to be and has been for his customers and his community.
“I want you to come in, and I want you to feel good. I want you to feel happy. But I also want you to feel like you deserve the experience that you are about to have,” said Smith. “As Black people, I feel like some of us go through the world saying, like, am I enough, and I’ve had a couple of clients come in and say, man this is really nice. I’ve never experienced anything like this.” Providing that experience for customers at Mike D’s Grooming Lounge is a milestone that was only fulfilled through taking a risk — the risk that is embedded in his DNA, embedded in the community of Black Barbers and Black Entrepreneurs, that is planted in the soil of Seattle.
The moment I stepped into the shop, I felt a sense of peace. Michael made me feel like I was family. The air conditioned studio was a cooling relief from the unbearable heat wave Seattle was experiencing. The surroundings created that type of luxury that you feel at a spa or a nice hotel. I felt like the most important person in the room. Sitting down to get my cut relieved me of all my worries and just allowed me to be, without anywhere to rush off to or anything to worry about. The finished product was a masterpiece. It made me stand a little bit taller. It had me glancing at the mirror a little bit longer, to admire and take in who I have always been.
After 12 years of serving the South End and with the blessing of J Styles, Smith took flight for his new enterprise. He is finally fulfilling the dream that blossomed through a time of grave uncertainty. As I listen to this inspirational story that offers a glimpse of such a difficult time period, it reminds me of why those memories were so fond for my Dad and I. We were not only building self-confidence as Black men in this world, but we were connecting ourselves to a long history of entrepreneurship, resilience, and dignity. Teaching us how to present ourselves with grace to a world that was not always kind to us. Teaching us to chase after our dreams and uphold the spirit that our ancestors, our people, have laid the foundation for.
Troy Landrum Jr. was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, and is currently a program producer for KUOW’s “Radioactive” program. He has spent the past few years as a bookseller at Third Place Books in Seward Park and recently graduated with a masters in fine arts at the University of Washington, Bothell. Follow Troy on Twitter at @TroyLandrumJr.
? Featured Image: Michael Smith, Jr. (Photo by Alex Garland)
Be the first to get new stories sent straight into your inbox.
by Troy Landrum, Jr.