Salons find success on North First

Tim Eggerding

Tim Eggerding

By Jonathan Mendes

Editor’s note: This article is the result of a month of research on North First Street. It is the second in a series of three parts. The interviews were conducted in November and December of 2004.

On a cold, bleak November morning, North First Street sits nearly still.

Fog hovers over the many vacant lots, and the inactivity of the morning makes the area seem barren. Only the clatter of a man pulling aside the metal grates covering the windows of a beauty salon disturbs the quiet.

On the other side of those windows, inside the Locks of Glory Phase II beauty salon, 204 N. First St., the mood is much different. Natalie Knight and her mother, Moira Dukes, chat and joke as they cut, condition and straighten their customers’ hair. The friendly talk and laughter make the room warm and welcoming.

Though only a handful of businesses operate on this stretch of North First Street, which became blighted over the last few decades, Locks of Glory and the street’s other barbershops and salons are prospering – serving as hope that the area’s redevelopment will be successful.

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    “They represent a successful minority business culture and ethic,” said James “Casey” Rooney, economic development manager at the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission. His office administers funds that have been invested in North First Street businesses. “They’ve come a long way in such a short time. There’s optimism and, of course, room for improvement. But the hope is that these businesses will expand, and new businesses will enter.”

    Beating the odds

    Small business is risk, said Joseph Broschak, a business administration professor at the University.

    Nationwide, one in three new small businesses fail within two years of opening, according to U.S. Small Business Administration statistics.

    By largely serving the black community, the black-owned barbershops and salons on North First serve a very specific market, which allows them a greater likelihood of success than small businesses in broader markets that have to compete with chain stores, Broschak said.

    “Chains tend to serve the general public, but niche markets tend to serve a specific segment of the general population,” Broschak said. “When you’re talking about niche markets for specific demographics, whether it’s race, ethnicity, etc., there’s lots of opportunity for (entrepreneurs).

    “But that requires doing homework. Understanding that you offer a specific product and knowing how customers will respond to what’s being offered,” he added.

    Beauty salons also hold a cultural significance to black women, said Noliwe Rooks, associate director of African American Studies at Princeton University. She is also the author of “Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture and African American Women,” which focuses on black identity and culture in relation to hair.

    “They are a social space where you learn to be a woman,” Rooks said. “Growing up, it’s a right of passage. In terms of business, it’s also an entrepreneurial opportunity, especially if you’re located in the black community. It’s a service that’s racially specific and it’s certainly a viable business.”

    Rooks said black women spend a lot of money on their hair because the product and treatments they use cost more. The average black woman spends between $60 and $100 on her hair for each visit to a beauty salon, Rooks added.

    “For black women, who have had a difficult time fitting in with accepted beauty norms, they can do all sorts of things with their hair to fit in,” Rooks said.

    Investing in hair

    Inside Locks of Glory, the smell of heated hair fills the room as Natalie Knight, the owner of the salon, pulls a heated straightening comb through her customer’s frizzy hair, transforming it into sleek, smooth hair. Two women on the opposite side of the room sit under hair-drying machines that seem to swallow their heads. Another woman, Kim Roberson, flips through a magazine, then watches the television while she waits to get her hair styled by Moira Dukes.

    Roberson has gotten her hair styled by Dukes since 1995, and she didn’t let moving from Champaign to Nashville, Tenn., stop her from returning for hair appointments. She would drive to Champaign for nearly six hours.

    “My friends back home ask, ‘Why would you drive all that way for your hair?'” said Roberson, a plump young woman with round cheeks. “When you find someone good, that’s where you want to go. And with black hair, you don’t want to take the chance. It’s hard to find a beautician who takes care of your hair. You need a lot of maintenance for black hair.”

    Knight said she believes other customers return for that same reason: They know the hairdressers not only style their hair but also care for it.

    “We do a lot of hair care,” said Knight, a tall woman with curly chin-length hair pulled back by a colorful orange ribbon. “We do styling too, but also our hair – black hair – needs a lot of maintenance. I feel as if (chains) don’t give (blacks) the maintenance that our hair needs.”

    “They know what they’re doing,” said Terrya Miller, senior in applied life studies who has come to the salon for four years and gets her hair done nearly every week.

    “It can get expensive but our hair is an investment,” Miller said. “You have to take care of it like a car. To make it look good, you have to take care of it with regular maintenance.”

    Joe Taylor, who has operated his barbershop, Rose and Taylor, 124 N. First St., in the area for 25 years, said while his barbers can cut any type of hair, his shop specializes in cutting black men’s hair.

    “We have barbers who can cut the same styles as Supercuts (and other chains),” said Taylor, a soft-spoken 60-year-old man. “We do cut hair for minorities better than anyone else. We’ve been doing it so long.”

    Taylor expanded his business when the city started redeveloping the area. He bought land on First Street and obtained a grant to finance construction of the building that houses his shop. Taylor’s narrow, long shop, with its walls lined with posters displaying different hairstyles, shares space in the building with two other salons. On most days, the shop is packed with people waiting for their turn to get their haircut by one of Taylor’s five employees or Taylor himself.

    Taylor estimated that 99 percent of his customers are black and return for a haircut about every two weeks.

    “A black barbershop is predicated on the knowledge of black hair and styles,” said John Lee Johnson, whom the city had hired to work with North First Street businesses looking to redevelop their properties. “It’s essential for business to know their clientele and understand their clientele.”

    “Business is going well,” Taylor said, while counting receipts, his gold-frame glasses drawn down low on his nose. “No problem in the barber business.”

    Personalized service

    Natalie Freeman, owner of Anointed Hands Beauty Salon, 124 N. First St., believes her key to success has been not only the work she does on hair, but also her personality and the salon’s atmosphere.

    Freeman’s secret?

    “You don’t have to sell yourself, just be yourself,” said Freeman, a slim woman with cropped hair, squared glasses and high cheekbones.

    Ted Adkisson, the retired owner of TeRo’s Beauty and Nail Salon, said interpersonal skills are necessary in the beauty business. Adkisson said that’s what kept him in business for 18 years.

    “You need to know how to keep your client base, and that’s treating them well and keeping them satisfied,” he said.

    Broschak, the business administration professor, echoed the sentiment. Hair salons are considered a personalized service, he said.

    “The more personalized the service, the more important the relationship,” he said. “You’re going to continue to go somewhere even if a place opens next door that’s cheaper. There’s a great personal relationship aspect. People tend to want to do business with people they know, like and trust.”

    Freeman said many of her customers have stayed with her since their first appointments. Many stayed with her even when she left her old location.

    Freeman also described her salon’s atmosphere as Christian, which comes from her identity as a Christian woman and the way in which she began her business.

    Freeman said she had just returned to Champaign from Chicago after attending beauty school. She had three daughters and had just left an abusive relationship. When she decided to start her salon, her mother’s friend donated old equipment, and her original landlord did not charge rent for the first few months.

    “People would say it was a miracle,” she said. “I didn’t have anything. I was a struggling mother on public aid. If you keep faith and trust in God, he’ll make opportunities for you … I said God, if you bless me with a shop, I’m going to dedicate it to you.”

    Freeman named the shop “Anointed Hands” and tries to preserve a gossip- and profanity-free salon. She also hosts a prayer breakfast at the salon.

    “I love this salon,” said LaTanya Cobb, an Urbana resident who goes to the salon every two weeks. “There’s no drama … Natalie is a good business person just because of who she is. I see her take care of people in the community. She’s a good soul. It’s from her roots. She’s a good Christian woman.”

    Growing business

    Freeman can tell her business is succeeding because her customer base is growing. The salon is quickly outgrowing the space in its current location.

    In November, Freeman worked with John Lee Johnson to try to obtain a city redevelopment grant to construct a new building and expand her hair salon into a multicultural full-service salon that would offer manicures, pedicures and tanning beds. New grant money rules, however, prevented the city from granting the money.

    Taylor, owner of the Rose and Taylor barbershop, thinks another building would be a boon to the area, allowing more diversified businesses to set up shop in the area.

    “It’s not through,” Taylor said of the area’s redevelopment. “We need an insurance office or some other professional offices, maybe even a laundry mat. Don’t you think we’ve got enough barbershops?

    “It may be a lot of black-owned businesses, but it’s not just for the black community,” Taylor said. “Everyone’s welcome. We treat everyone the same.”