South LA Snapshot: Barber

April 11, 2012, 5 p.m.

Beverly Baker is co-owner of Cutty's Barber Shop and Salon, and calls her shop the air she breathes. (Credit: José Martinez/OnCentral)

In OnCentral's "South L.A. Snapshot" series, we provide you with a glimpse into the lives of everyday women and men in South Los Angeles. This time, we talked to a barber – Beverly Baker, 43. Baker is the co-owner of Cutty's Barber Shop and Salon on near Vermont Avenue and 54th Street which means a lot more than styling fades and cutting mohawks: It's become something of a philanthropic venture for her.

Cutty's is how Baker gives back to the community, and over the near decade-and-a-half she's been a barber, she's gotten involved with charities with a range of causes, including diabetes, homelessness, breast cancer, and children's quality of life. We sat down with Baker to talk about what it's like being a female barber, barbershop culture and, interestingly enough, weed.

When I asked if you were hairstylist you said you were actually a barber. What's the difference?
Well, by license, I'm a barber-stylist. The only difference is that a barber can't do nails and certain deep facial things. Those are the only differences. Barbers can use razors and stylists can't. When you get a barber's license, you can do hair, you can cut hair, you can use scissors, you can shave.

So why did you become one?
Fifteen years ago, my cousin called me and asked me to be a barber. I had been in the corporate world for 20 years. I started out about 18 years old doing clerical work in the medical field, then I changed over to public relations. They told me about L. Ron Hubbard's management techniques, which were very helpful. Then my cousin came to me and said he wanted to open a barbershop; he knew I couldn't cut hair but I could run a business. I had seen so many pink slips at other PR companies, so I decided it was time to do something for myself. I went to school for three months and got an apprenticeship license, then worked in a shop and got all my hours in there.

Eventually, my cousin left, and another owner came in. He was a pastor and I learned about the nonprofit world. That's when I fell in love with philanthropy.

After that, a friend of mine put this shop together and didn't know how to run it. So he put it together and asked me to co-own. So now I co-own Cutty's Barber Shop and Salon with David Lee, and the other staffers are Antionette Scott, Mike Grimes and Tyara McVea.

Do you have a specialty?
Men. [Laughs] I love to spoil men. My facials are really good – they love my facials, because it takes a lot of stress from them. About 10 hot towels, shea butter and just lay back. When they come in they look so terrible, and when you're done with that haircut, you've got a whole different person, the self-esteem is high – that smile at the end is the best part.

What's the dynamic like as a female barber?
That is what makes a big difference. It's not being black, white, Hispanic – it's being a woman barber. Men don't think you'll be able to cut their hair well until they see what you can do. But during the whole 15 years, it's been a power struggle. When my cousin first brought me in, people asked him what he was thinking, bringing a female barber in here. Now, 15 years later, they thank God I'm here.

Guys think they can talk to you any kind of way, too. That's where I got my mouth – I've had to defend myself from them. I've had to learn how to balance it out so I don't hurt their feelings, because I can hurt their feelings too. A lot of times they try to challenge me intellectually. If I were a man, they wouldn't be so bold and talk to me a certain way.

I think one of the best parts about being a woman barber, though, is that a lot of my clients have actually made it more difficult for me to want to settle down. They take care of me, and I have about 150 of them. They pay my bills, so what do I need a man in my life for – to get on my nerves? [Laughs] But it's a challenge too. It's hard to hold down a relationship because I'm here all the time.

And that kind of commitment to the business is something you probably wouldn't find in, say, a Supercuts. How would you describe this barbershop culture?
It's more personalized. And Cutty's is different because we actually take the time to groom – it's not just a haircut, there's some grooming going on. Supercuts, you're in and out – it's like going to H&R Block for your taxes. They also pay by the hour; here, everybody's an independent contractor or apprentice.

We cut everybody. Really the only difference is curly and straight hair. Here we're more family-oriented; we bond more. I'm "Auntie" to everybody, and I just recently met half these people. My family is here all the time. There are a lot of people who just come here and hang out. My clients come here and are comfortable. They just sit and watch TV. There's never any drama in here.

Never any drama?
I don't allow certain things in here. No gang relations, no discussing gangs, none of that. It's about respect. If they know that you're not playing that, they won't come in with that. They check that at the door. And not only that, I have police officers who come in here and people never know when they're here or when they're going to be here, so that keeps any trouble toned down. Also I fuss a lot and they don't want to hear my mouth.

What about a different kind of drama: Have you become a confidante for a lot of your clients?
Yeah, they tell you everything. I know everybody's personal business – what they do, where they live, how long they've been married, how many kids they have, what happened to them at work today. What they ate yesterday. [Laughs] Thoughts and dreams and hopes for the future. I enjoy listening because a lot of times I try to help them in certain situations. I've got a pretty good ear, pretty good shoulder to lean on. It comes with the territory.

Every so often you don't want to hear it, so you just tell them! [Laughs] Tell them nicely, anyway. But 99 percent of the time, you're just going to listen. Most of the time they just need someone to listen to anyway.

So you must have some interesting conversations. Any highlights come to mind?
One of my client's names is Smiley. I've watched him battle cancer, and knew him when he was just normal Smiley, then when he had cancer and almost lost his life, and then when he went from street gangs and doing other street stuff to being a normal person. So you see growth in a lot of people. A lot of them I had as kids in elementary school , then high school, then college ... I think the most memorable was Smiley.

Everybody else just praises me, it's enough for me. I'm the center of attention. [Laughs]

But you also shine a lot of attention onto charities. What's one that's particularly close to your heart?
My favorite is Susan G. Komen for the Cure, for breast cancer. I do Komen more than any other one. When I first got into it, I had called Komen and started talking to one of the ladies, and when I found out the history behind it – that when Susan Komen was dying of breast cancer, her sister promised her she'd do everything she could to get rid of breast cancer forever and started the organization – I just thought that was the ultimate. I just fell in love with it.

I've been a widow for 15 years. My husband was a plumber, and he died of cancer. So that's another link to Komen, even though it was a different kind of cancer. I almost think that sometimes I became a workaholic because of that. But my kids are here all the time.

So what does this barber shop mean to you?
Everything. It's the air I breathe. I wake up in the morning and as soon as my feet hit the ground, I know I'm on my way to the shop. For everybody in here, I have a special part of their lives, and even the rest of their families, so it's not just a barber shop.

One more question: It happens fairly often that I walk by a barber shop and smell marijuana. Is that...something people do in barber shops?
[Laughs] Yep, that is part of the culture! I don't even know why, but it is. Maybe it helps with patience. It's something to do socially when you're just sitting for hours. But I don't really have an answer why every time you walk by a barber shop, you smell weed. Definitely keeps you calm. [Laughs]

So does that happen between cuts?
I guess. [Laughs] You might have to call me on the phone with that one later.

Cutty's Barber Shop and Salon is located at 5228 South Vermont Avenue.

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