Black hair salons still struggling to make ends meet

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By Darlene Donloe

Contributing Writer

CRENSHAW — Although hair salons and barbershops have been allowed to reopen for business in L.A. County, some Black establishments in the Crenshaw District and Leimert Park have found it difficult to regain the financial footing they once enjoyed prior to being forced to close last March due to the coronavirus.

The salons and barbershops, which were allowed to reopen in May and forced to close again in July, were allowed to reopen earlier this month only if they followed specific state guidelines requiring owners and their employees to wear face masks, stagger appointments, put more physical distance between chairs, follow the 25% capacity rule, provide hand sanitizer, practice social distancing and increase the frequency of hand-washing.

With financial uncertainty staring them in the face, barbers, hairstylists and shop owners are nervous about what’s going to happen to their industry as the COVID-19 numbers continue to rise.

For the last 19 years, Michelle Rachal, the owner of Turning Heads hair salon, has maintained a successful business in Leimert Park.

She said she understood the sudden order to close her business, but it was still a confusing turn of events.

“When the coronavirus first hit, I didn’t think it would affect me financially because it wasn’t presented to us in that fashion,” said Rachal, who has been a hairstylist for 35 years. “[President Trump] painted it as a hoax.

“We ended up being closed for three months. Then we opened for a month and then closed again for a month. Thankfully, my clients are slowly coming back,” Rachal said. “I guess it will take time for them to feel comfortable. I have a feeling of real peace with my business, but I don’t have a real peace about what’s going on.”

Even when things got bleak, Rachal said she never lost faith.

“I never felt I was going to lose the business,” she said. “Never. I knew God had my back.”

Since reopening, Rachal has been adhering to all of the social distancing edicts and protocols.

“I take my client’s temperature as soon as they come in,” Rachal said. “As soon as my clients walk in they see a sign that says, ‘Welcome Back.’ It then lists all the standards they have to follow.

“They also have to wash their hands when they first come in. I give my stylists gloves, face shields and masks and I clean the area after each client. I have also spread out the dryer chairs. All of my stations are six feet apart. There is no talking while your hair is getting shampooed and there are no magazines.”

Rachal, who is also following the 25% capacity guideline, estimates that she lost $12,000 each month she was closed.

“I try not to think about it,” she said. “It hurts. When it first started, I thought I was getting played. I was sitting here broke as hell. As an owner, you have to fight for your business. I’m not a quitter. I didn’t do all this to give up.”

When shopping malls were allowed to reopen Oct 7, Stix Young, a barber at Hair Architects in the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, was ecstatic.

“I couldn’t wait to see my customers in this environment again,” said Young, who has worked at Hair Architects for four years. “I was excited to get back and see everybody. I was quite surprised.”

On a recent Friday afternoon, when his shop would normally be packed with customers, Young stood alone in the shop, trimming the mustache and beard of Evan Coates, one of his regular customers.

Asked the whereabouts of his colleagues, Young responded, “I don’t know. I’m the only one here. No one else came back. I’d like to know where they are, too.”

Young was the only barber that returned to work at Hair Architects. He surmises that his colleagues had settled in with making house calls.

“I did the same thing when we were closed,” Young said. “I had to make money. This whole COVID thing really messed me up financially.”

Patrons entering Hair Architects must have their temperature checked at the door before entering. Inside, there is plenty of hand sanitizer and plexiglass separating all of the barber stations.

Nakia Burks, 45, has wanted to be a barber ever since she was 14 years old and successfully cut her cousin’s hair. Today she is the owner of N Spot Barber and Beauty Shop on Crenshaw Boulevard. She’s been at that location for 21 years.

When COVID-19 hit and she was forced to close her doors, she wasn’t sure if it was going to affect her ability to make money. In fact, she wasn’t sure what to think about anything.

“At first I didn’t think it would mess with me financially,” she said. “I didn’t know how it was going to go. Was it going to be serious? Were they going to get it under control? As it went on, then I started to worry.”

No one ever officially contacted Burks about closing down her business, she said. The only information she received was from watching the news.

“No one ever contacted me,” she said. “I was instantly like, ‘Wow, they could at least contact business owners to figure out a way we could stay open.’ Financially that wasn’t OK. We have families, bills, and a business to run. They could have come up with a better solution. It was rather abrupt.”

While some hairstylists and barbers chose to make house calls, Burks, who recently got married, said that wasn’t an option for her.

“I shut down completely,” she said. “They said they were going to fine people. I wasn’t going to go to people’s houses. I can’t do that. First, I have way too many clients. I can’t go to everybody’s house. That would have been very dangerous. By not working, though, I lost thousands and thousands of dollars. At 25% capacity, it’s hard to make that back.”

Asked how long she can work at just 25% capacity, Burks wasn’t sure.

“It’s costly,” she said.  “You have to buy supplies and keep everything clean. I’m not complaining. At the end of the day, we have to do what we have to do.”

Burks makes sure she and her clients are safe. She staggers appointments and meets all of the social distancing guidelines. She currently has six stylists/barber chairs, and three of them are for rent.

“I’m constantly wiping down everything,” she said. “I wipe down the chairs after every client. Everyone wears masks, washes their hands, and uses hand sanitizer.”

Pre COVID-19, Burks would see about 15-20 clients per day. Today, she sees between five and 10.

“I’ve definitely lost some clients,” she said. “I think some of them are afraid to come or they’ve just decided not to come back right now.”

Burks doesn’t want to think about what would happen if the coronavirus forced her to close for good.

“This is what I’ve been doing all my life,” said Burks who went into business at 19. “This is all I know. If I had to close for good, I’d have to quickly figure out something else.”

Rachel is optimistic that things will return to “some form of normal.”

“It will return, but it will take leadership,” said Rachal. “Everything starts at the top. If the top is not thinking about the people, it will take longer. We have to deal with this, so just put on your mask. It’s not that difficult.”

Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at ddonloe@gmail.com.