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Hidden In Plain Sight: Arcade Barbers In Ann Arbor Is Changing Social Perceptions

Glass ceilings are being broken in many industries that have long been male-dominated.  To this day, there are businesses built on what many perceive to be a man’s job.  For instance, who do you picture when you think of a barber?  In our latest installment of “Hidden in Plain Sight,” 89.1 WEMU’s Jorge Avellan reports on female barbers in Ann Arbor who are helping change that perception.   

History comes alive as you enter the Arcade Barbers shop located at the Nickels Arcade.  It’s everything you think about when you imagine an old fashioned barber shop.  Five heavy-duty chairs fill up the 400-square foot space.  The white, grey, and burgundy floor has been set in multiple octagon shapes.  It’s original, early 20th Century tile.  But, there is something that has changed over the years.  

"All right then. What are we going to do for you today?"

Tina Hamilton is one of three women barbers at the shop.  There are a total of eight barbers, including the owner Tiffany Royal.  She bought the shop in 2001 but has been working there since 1992.

"I’m the first female owner, so that’s a little cool."

Royal says construction of the shop was completed in late 1917, but it didn’t officially open until early 1918.  It is probably no surprise that there were no women working at the shop in the early 1900’s.  Royal says you might be surprised to learn barbers were serving women customers almost from the start.

"We actually have old advertisements from back in the early 20’s--advertising that they specialized in women’s haircuts called the bob. So barbers kind of thought of that haircut before even women stylists did. So I don’t think there was ever a time they weren’t allowed."

Jessica Borel is the third female barber and Royal’s sister.  She, like Tina Hamilton, has been working there for almost fifteen years.  According to Data USA, nearly 78% of barbers in the country are men.  But Borel says many shops in Washtenaw County do have women barbers.  We chatted about stereotypes.

Jorge: "So it doesn’t seem like its super unusual for women to be barbers, but why do you think that’s the perception?"
Jessica: "I think it’s changing. I think because movies, Hollywood, they portray barber shops as this uber-male thing. When that’s probably changing and has been changing in the last 15, 20 years."

Royal adds that more women would probably be interested in becoming barbers if they had more resources to do so. 

"There’s so few barber schools, that us, we went to schools for cosmetology and then got grandfathered in to the barbering type of stuff because working here for so long. So if they had more schools available, it would be easier to find female barbers or just barbers in general truthfully. Because there are just not as many schools."

Borel says she hasn’t personally experienced backlash for being a barber, but there are occasions when a customer will specifically request a male barber.

"We have had some who may have a religious restriction, and women can’t cut their hair. So they have asked us not to. It’s not very often, but we respect that. So that’s about the only time that you might have some hesitation from the men that come in here."

Tina Hamilton says it has been a great experience cutting hair at Arcade Barbers.  For her, it wasn’t as much gender that other shops took issue.  As a black woman, there were some shops in Ann Arbor that just didn’t want to hire her, at least one going as far as to say they “didn’t want her kind.”  When it comes to race, about 47% of barbers are white and 34% are black, according to Data USA.

"I used to work back across campus, and I would walk through here going to the parking lot and would want to come in, but I saw all men. But one day, I passed by, and I saw Tiffany and her sister and I was like, 'Oh my goodness, I love to cut hair.' So I called her and she said, 'Well come on in.' And that was how I got here."

Annually, the specialists at Arcade Barbers perform 20,000 haircuts.  Not only are more women becoming barbers, but Jessica Borel says more are getting their hair done at barber shops.  Right now, Borel says there is a popular style that better suits the skill set of a barber than a stylist.

"The long hair with the undercut shaved which lets you look formal, yet it’s a cool trendy thing. And then, they started putting designs onto the shaves. Your typical salon is not very clipper-friendly. They’re very much more style scissor-friendly."

Borel adds that young girls, who walk in with their fathers to the shop, are also starting to learn more about women barbers.

"We’ve had a few girls just sit and literally stare at what we’re doing and ask questions and want to know what we’re doing. So they don’t find it unusual. In fact, many of them come in and want to know why are you getting your haircut here and why can’t I? Because, usually, Mom takes the daughter to her salon with her. And then we’ll speak up and say, 'Oh, yeah, we could do your hair if you would like.' And we’ve had quite a few little girls who started coming to us because Dad did."

Whenever you see barber shops in the movies, it almost always features a group of men discussing the issues of the day.  Royal says the fact that Arcade Barbers is owned by a woman and has three female barbers doesn’t change the tradition of having the shop serve as a gathering place for fun and discussion.

Tiffany: "I got a story for you."
Customer: "That’s good. I need a good story. I hope it has a happy ending."

Royal says, after working at the shop for 26 years, there isn’t a subject that she can’t discuss with her male clients. 

"They get to know you so well that you kind of become their therapist or their confident. And they will tell you things knowing that you don’t know them outside of here. If there is something going on in their lives, I think that they feel this is an outlet for talking about it, knowing that it stays here."

John Beltsos has been getting his hair cut by Royal since March.

John: "She was the one who just happened to be there when I came in the first time. It clicked."
Jorge: "She has her hands on her hips kind of saying 'What?'"
John: "The prettiest, smartest and best barber. What else can we say?"

Issues of gender equality and women’s rights are certainly not off limits at the shop.  Tina Hamilton says she’s found the male clientele at Arcade Barbers to be open during those discussions.

"I can start talking to someone, and a guy across the room will make a comment, and it would just go back and forth. And we’re all talking before we know it. Because the men who come in here, they love their wives, they love their friends who are girls, their nieces. I just think today we’re all allowed to talk to each other."

Rick Ingalls is one of the male barbers who works at shop.  He says he learns something from the women every day.

"We definitely all have our unique perspectives, and I definitely enjoy that."

Owner Tiffany Royal says since Arcade Barbers is an original business of Nickels Arcade, their rent has been grandfathered in for quite some time now. Their 12 plus-hour work day and proximity to the University of Michigan has also helped them stay in business.  But most importantly, Royal believes it's customer loyalty that keeps their doors open.

"All the time, you’ll get the grandchild, where the grandpa went to school here and the grandpa brings him in and talks about how he got his haircut here. And then, his son went here and his son was with him sometimes. They’ll say that they came for haircuts, and they’ll talk about the different barbers that were here at the time and what it looked like in here."

Nearly 23% of the barbers in America are now women, and that number is growing.  As it is at Arcade Barbers, when perception comes around to meet reality, female barbers will no longer be “Hidden in Plain Sight.”   

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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him javellan@emich.edu

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