'I Believe I'm Just Answering The Call': Black Barbershops In Milwaukee Adjust To The Pandemic
Just a year ago, a day at Gee’s Clippers in Milwaukee’s Bronzeville neighborhood was full of activity. The barbershop is about 8,000 square feet and on any given day there were more than 80 clients eager to get a fresh cut from one of the more than 20 barbers. Around the room you could hear the sounds of people talking and laughing. It was a place where members of the Black community were able to come together.
When the pandemic began last spring, many local businesses were forced to temporarily close their storefronts. While doing so kept people safe, it put a strain on many barbershops in the city.
Gaulien “Gee” Smith is the owner of Gee’s Clippers. He says he shut down the shop for two and a half months until it was safe to reopen, but that doing so was one of the hardest decisions he had to make for his barbers.
“Those guys, like me, didn't have any income coming in, and they might not have been as diligent in terms of saving their money like some of us,” Smith says. “What I had to do, just with our group texts, was make sure I engaged with all of them every day, every other day, and the ones that I didn't feel that were responding too much in the group I would call them individually and ask ‘How's it going, man? Just checking on you. Is there anything you need?’”
Since Gee’s Clippers reopened, it has continued to be a gathering spot for the Black community. But because of social distancing and other coronavirus protocols in place, Smith admits the shop has changed in terms of how people are able to gather and interact.
To get a haircut at Gee’s Clippers, clients need to have an appointment or put their name on a list and wait six feet apart from each other. They aren’t able to walk around and talk with other customers.
Instead, Smith says the shop is now focused on helping barbers build relationships and engage more with their clients.
“I let the barbers know, ‘Now you see how important it is to spend quality time with your barber?’ Now you're forced to improve on your client's service skills,” he says. “You can easily get away with it in a barbershop setting, being a somewhat quiet type of guy because your client is in the chair and while you’re cutting their hair, your client is talking to everybody else in a group setting group conversation. But it's changed now.”
While an average day at Gee’s Clippers looks a lot different than it did before the pandemic, that is not the case for some other Black barbershops in Milwaukee.
Antwan Murvin, better known as Murv, is the owner of Murv’s Barbershop. Unlike Gee’s Clippers, Murvin says his barbershop has always been on the quieter side.
“For the majority of time, it's just one person going out, one person coming in — so it's really personable,” he says.
For him, focusing on one client at a time is just the way he likes it. Even with the pandemic, business at the barbershop has mostly stayed the same, but Murvin says it’s been hard to lose some longtime customers, many of whom were like family to him.
“Sometimes that was difficult because you miss the person, you wonder how they’re doing and when you reach out to them some people answer the phone, some people don't,” he says. “It's been a transition. It's had its rough moments, but for the most part, you know, I say we bounce back.”
Herald Dean is one of Murvin’s longtime clients. He says getting a haircut and spending time in the barbershop has been something he’s looked forward to during the pandemic.
“Me and Murv are tight. We sit there and laugh and joke while he cutting my hair. You know, it's a good time. It's not only getting your haircut, it's an experience,” Dean says.
For Dean, it’s that sense of community that is so important to him and other members of the Black community.
Back at Gee’s, owner Gee Smith agrees that barbershops have always been an important resource for clients and he says he has a responsibility to be there for them. Even in the middle of a pandemic, Smith hopes barbershops will continue to be a gathering place for the Black community and he’s determined to keep it going.
“I believe I'm just answering the call. I believe I'm just being obedient, doing what I feel I have been assigned to do,” he says.