“My last trip in the penitentiary, I had to make a decision on what I wanted to do with my life,” said Reggie Bailey, sitting in the swiveling barber chair in his small shop in the heart of downtown Oakland. “I just decided to go to barber college.”
From barber college, Bailey moved on to salon work, and then to this shop, which he has owned for nearly five years. But his path wasn’t always so clean cut.
He grew up in East Oakland. As a young man, his passion was drawing. By third grade he knew he was an artist. But during his teen years, the promise of fast money in the streets caught his eye – and he, in turn, got caught up.
It was during his second stint in prison, sitting in a cell in Vacaville on a drug charge, that it all clicked.
He says he wanted to work, but not for anyone else. He wanted to be an artist, but he wanted to get paid. He decided to be a barber.
Bailey was released from prison after serving two and a half years on a narcotics charge.
After graduating from Moler Barber College, Bailey worked in a series of Oakland salons. He says he was introduced to a world of chemicals, colors, perms, dyes, and different shampoos bowls.
“Barbering is one dimension — but there are so many different fields that barbering can go into,” Bailey said, leaning back in his chair. “Cutting hair is one thing, but I always wanted to do different things: chemical the hair, color the hair, treat the hair, treat the skin, and treat the client as well.”
Bailey takes his craftsmanship seriously — so seriously that he refers to himself as a public servant. “You get a chance to meet the people—everyone from a homeless man to a millionaire have set in this chair,” Bailey said.
For the past four years, he has opened the doors of U’Next barbershop six days a week. The founder of the Oakland Chapter of the Black Barber’s Association, he is in the process of grooming another young barber. “This is Dwight right here,” Bailey said, referring to the younger gentleman in the adjacent seat. “We’re going to see what he can do.”
Bailey’s barbershop gives him a rare perspective on Oakland. Businessmen and women, school kids, clients from local marijuana dispensaries, police, and protesters —they all might come through Bailey’s barbershop doors on any given day.
“A lot of times we get protests down here, a lot of demonstrations, a lot of occupy demonstrators, a lot of policing—it’s just the city of Oakland, you’re going to get that,” Bailey said.
But asked about any downsides to doing business in downtown Oakland, he said he had no complaints: “As far as the downsides, I don’t really find a downside, because I turn my downs into positives.”