By Yezua Ho
Ben Meisyria had just found out barbershops could reopen after the industry suffered a pandemic closure for six months. In the meantime, the 33-year-old barber had replaced his trimming scissors and old-fashioned razor with a hammer and nails, doing odd jobs like mounting TVs and construction until the reopening. When personal care services resumed last June, Meisyria could finally return to Tony’s Classic Cuts, the business he and his family had devoted their lives to.
But rather than feeling relief, he felt nervous. “Shit, we’re reopening?” he thought to himself.
How would the barbershop function with face masks? Would customers return, let alone acknowledge the precautions? Would COVID-19 prevent Meisyria from building a relationship with them?
According to Statistics Canada, COVID-19 affected barbers and hairstylists the most out of all skilled trades. Over 70 per cent of certified hairstylists received the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) to support themselves when their industry was shut down. But for Meisyria and other barbers, the effects of the pandemic stretched far beyond the financial setbacks. COVID-19 had also stolen a major part of what makes a barbershop successful: its sense of community, where everyone can easily confide in one another about their lives and challenges.
Getting a haircut “is like a doctor’s appointment now,” Meisyria said.
Meisyria’s father Tony opened Tony’s Classic Cuts in 1994, intending to make it the best barbershop in Mississauga. After he retired, Meisyria and his sister, Preeti, ran the shop until it was forced to shut down last December due to COVID-19.
With its sign remaining the same for 27 years, the shop is located in a small plaza off Hurontario. Still, the barbershop amassed several positive reviews on Google, receiving near-perfect star ratings by their clients. Many of its high reviews come from its loyal customers, some who have been frequenting the shop for more than two decades.
Before the pandemic, the barbershop operated on a “first-come, first-served” basis.
The door was always open and the size of the crowd in its tiny entrance was a gauge of how the shop would do for the day. The music playing over the speakers would never be louder than the conversations in the barbershop. The Meisyrias worked not to cut as many clients’ hair as fast as possible, to ensure each client had the same attentive treatment as the last.
They tried their best to remember all of their clients’ names and would recall any details to bring up the next time their clients visited (even when the time in between could be months), congratulating them on any successes or listening to their problems.
“Tony’s has and always will be a place where someone can come, hang out and have a regular conversation without being judged about what they’re talking about,” said Meisyria.
But the pandemic changed that. When Tony’s initially reopened, it had rules to abide by: face masks, two metres of distance between clients, mandatory appointments booked online and a capacity limit of only 50 per cent.
“It felt like the government didn’t care if you lost something when you reopened. It’s like they were saying, ‘Go ahead if you want to reopen but follow these rules. If you can’t follow any of them, it’s not our problem,’” Meisyria said. “That led to clients having difficulty understanding we didn’t enforce these precautions.”
A barbershop’s success relies on the relationship between the barber and their clients, said Kyle Ly, a barber at the Hall of Fades Studio in Toronto, and there are moments where a barber must go beyond just making a client comfortable.
“My clients told me very deep things about their lives: nervousness about what they’ll do after high school or personal issues they’ve been dealing with,” he said. “You never know what to say but you just have to let them know you’re there for them.”
It took Ly’s clients some time to open up after being in quarantine, however. “When we first reopened, people were still super scared of COVID. The whole atmosphere was like, ‘OK, should I speak up or not? Am I overstepping if I do?’
“I just remember we have to make sure that every single person, regardless of race or gender, steps in and feels welcome. They should feel at home,” Ly said.
The Confess Project, a project in Arkansas, trains barbers to become mental health advocates for their clients. It aims to prove a barbershop is always a place of comfort, especially for Black men who’ve been conditioned to hold in their emotions. Lorenzo Lewis, the project’s founder, and Harvard researcher Justin Gelhizer conducted a study to see how crucial barbers are to men’s mental health.
Interviewing 32 barbers, the researchers concluded that even at the most basic level, Black barbers play a valuable role in “empowering and healing Black community members.”
For example, barbers who earned the community members’ trust through years of cutting their hair, alongside extensive sanitation training required to become a barber, felt they could point people in the right direction regarding public health during the pandemic.
The study also found that despite the limited space capacity and walk-in options, returning customers made it feel like “pre-pandemic times.” When a client got a haircut for the funeral of a loved one who died of COVID-19, barbers used the haircut as “a chance to share grief and let clients know someone is listening.”
“They were going through something difficult and new,” the researchers said. “But they were going through it together.”
Today, even though COVID-19 restrictions have eased, Meisyria, his sister and their clients still wear their masks and practice other safety precautions. Otherwise, it seems to be business as usual. When I visited for a haircut in March, the shop had a steady stream of customers; whenever two clients waiting at reception left their seats for their haircuts, two more clients immediately entered the barbershop and sat down.
During my haircut, Preeti’s client said it was his 17th birthday, telling her quietly like he wanted to keep it a secret. Meisyria and I only found out when Preeti gasped, like she was supposed to be told sooner.
Meisyria chuckled and told me: “That guy? Been cutting his hair since he was a baby.”
Meisyria isn’t as worried about the future of Tony’s as he was the day he found out they were reopening. He said because the business has been around for so long, the loyal customers have been coming back, even bringing their children.
“I’ve cut the same person’s hair at different stages of their life, whether it’s for prom, graduation, or even after marriage,” Meisyria said. “In the end, you just make them feel like family, and they’ll do the same for you.”