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Transitions and traditions overlap at Chicago’s Barber Shop

Sat, 30 Sep 2017 18:53:00
5 / 5 (1 Votes)
Article by:
Brett Yates
An exterior awning sign shows that the shop offers full barbering services. Photo by Brett Yates.
Chicago’s II —  the barbershop whose traditional red, white, and blue spiraled poles have decorated the storefront at 1000 Divisadero St. for nearly two decades — began as the offspring of a chain of black-owned barbershops on Fillmore Street. However, contrary to its name, it was not the second barbershop in the neighborhood called Chicago’s. In fact, it was the fourth.
   
The first Chicago’s — founded by an Illinois transplant in honor of his hometown — opened in 1952 at Fillmore and Ellis and fell victim to urban renewal in 1968. In the meantime, two more Fillmore-based locations began operations — Chicago Barbershop #2 at Sutter, and New Chicago Barbershop #3 at Geary — but when their owner was shot and killed on a trip to San Diego, the chain splintered, with the barbershops retaining only a loose affiliation, according to longtime barber Robert Hardin.
   
The longest-lasting was New Chicago Barbershop #3, which closed in 2013 after 60 years of business at 1551 Fillmore St., where Willie Brown was a regular. By the time Hardin, a New Chicago Barbershop #3 alumnus, opened Chicago’s II on Divisadero, the first Chicago Barbershop and Chicago Barbershop #2 had both disappeared; his new location, therefore, became the second extant Chicago’s in the Western Addition — hence the name Chicago’s II, with a roman numeral to differentiate it from the earlier sequel. Now, it’s the only Chicago’s in town, and the sign outside says simply CHICAGO’S, but locals still know it as Chicago’s II.
   
In Hardin’s view, Chicago’s II has been able to carry on the Chicago’s legacy successfully because it “took the past” and “moved it” into the present, evolving alongside its neighborhood without compromising its core identity. With the erosion of San Francisco’s African American population, which peaked at about 100,000 in 1970 before dwindling to less than half that number today, Hardin recognized that “there was not enough support here” to sustain a conventional black barbershop. “The handwriting was on the wall,” he said.
   
Chicago’s II remains perhaps San Francisco’s most iconic black-owned barbershop, but Hardin’s staff now includes Asian, white, Arab, and Latino barbers. He mentioned that their newest hire was a barber from Moscow who could speak “four or five languages.” Hardin also continues to cut hair himself, as he has for half a century, right alongside his fresh-faced employees in their twenties. The staff is “a good reflection of the neighborhood” itself, said manager Kenneth El-Amin.
  
Jon, a 27-year-old barber, used to work at a newer barbershop but said he much prefers Chicago’s II, commenting that there “wasn’t really any knowledge” at his previous workplace. “Here, you get all generations.” His coworker Jack, who grew up in the Western Addition, added, “You can sit down and feel like you’re at an old-school barbershop rather than a new hipster barbershop.”
   
Each of the barbers at Chicago’s II knows how to cut all types of hair, and together they serve a clientele as diverse as they are. “All kinds of people come in here,” said Ramy, who has worked at Chicago’s II for three years. “We treat everybody the same.”
   
El-Amin explained that the customers are not preoccupied by the ethnic makeup of the staff and that, “at the end of the day, it comes down to” the quality of the haircut, but an effort has been made to ensure that customers from all walks of life “feel comfortable” in the barbershop’s communal setting. Although the staff is all male, women come for haircuts, too. In Ramy’s words, there are “good vibes around here. Everybody’s on the same page.”
   
The managerial philosophy at Chicago’s II regards all employees, young and old, as equals. “Everybody here is a shot-caller,” Hardin said, emphasizing that there are “no rules” for his barbers except two: “Come to work; do the right thing.”
  
Jon, who previously worked in retail and security, said that he has “a lot more freedom” as a barber. “You’re responsible for yourself.” The shop’s official hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., but he usually comes in around 10 a.m. and sometimes stays as late as 7 or 8 p.m.
   
Similar to many of the barbers at Chicago’s II, Jon started out by cutting his own hair. “My dad used to cut my hair,” he recounted, but after his parents’ divorce, he did not have anyone to do it. “I just took it into my own hands,” he said. Ramy first cut hair in his garage when he could not otherwise find work: “I went and bought me some clippers,” he recalled, and he practiced on friends by offering free haircuts. When they started asking him for appointments, he started charging them, and eventually he decided to make a legitimate career of it. Hardin, for his part, put it bluntly: “I don’t fit the profile of corporate America.”
   
Yet the barbers at Chicago’s II value comradery as much as they do their independence, and the atmosphere of the barbershop is lively with banter and jokes. “We have a lot of talk,” said Jon, and the customers enjoy it as much as the staff does. “A barbershop is a place where the guys go,” Ramy elaborated. “There’s nothing like having a good conversation and giving them a good cut.”
   
Some of the young barbers have already accumulated a roster of regular clients as devoted as those of Hardin or El-Amin, who has been at Chicago’s for 15 years. Daniel, who was hired eight months ago, said that he has customers who visit him “weekly.” A J, a 21-year-old barber, strives to win over the shop’s walk-ins: “If they like the haircut, I give them a card, and they come back.”

 
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