Christopher Ware in his barbershop

The black man’s alternate living room on the 4-5

on September 26, 2016

Christopher Ware opens up his barbershop, Room to Groom, at 4514 Market Street in Oakland, a little after the official opening hour of 9:30 a.m. As soon as he unlocks the front door, a man comes running from across the street towards the shop. “Ay, yo Chris!” he yells. Undistracted, Ware continues with his daily routine, turning off the alarm, turning on the lights and switching on the televisions to ESPN 2.

A few seconds later, the man stands in the door. “Yo, Chris!” he repeats. This time the barber hears him and turns. “Yo, you got me?” the man asks pointing to his big Afro. Ware nods. The man smiles and takes a seat.

“Yo, what do you think of Sanchez going to the Cowboys?” the client asks as the first chunks of hair fall on the floor.

His question sets off a conversation that continues for rest of the morning and later grows as other customers and barbers walk in.

So begins a typical day at the 16-year-old barbershop. Owned by Ware and his brother, Room to Groom is one of the barbershops in Oakland that caters to African-Americans and has managed to stay in business despite a 24 percent decline in Oakland’s black population between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census.

That drop meant a consequent decline in businesses, but unlike others, Room and Groom survived. Between 2007 and 2014, 49 percent of the businesses in the area turned over, including many African-American hair salons and barbers, according to UC Berkeley researchers who wrote a 2015 report called MacArthur Accessibility and Investment in North Oakland.

“I feel like the white man is buying our stores and taking it from us,” says 20-year-old Zell Finister who has been coming to Room to Groom all his life. “It’s a blessing to me to still see black barbershops in this neighborhood.”

Finister says the “4-5,” as he calls the block between 45th and 46th Streets, has seen a lot of changes in recent years. “People used to hang here, but many have moved away from here,” he says.

The 46-year-old Ware has taken note of the “white guys on race bikes” and new white neighbors—three recently—but he’s sanguine about his future. “I don’t see any trouble yet, as everybody wants their hair cut like black people nowadays,” he says.

But it’s not just the owner and longtime customers such as Finister who have started to see the rapid changes in the neighborhood. Dawit Wama, 22, who has been going to the shop since he moved from Ethiopia five years ago, agrees.

“In the beginning I didn’t see the change so much, but it has dramatically changed over the last two years,” Wama says. He says he feels conflicted, being happy on one side with the drop in crime and the number of highly educated people moving to the area that can “help the community forward,” he says.

But on the other hand, “I hate that people who used to live here for generations are pushed out.” For Wama, Room to Groom feels like one of the few places that are still “consistent” in the neighborhood. “It’s an environment you don’t find anywhere else. It’s more of a family thing,” he says, standing in front of the shop where he just had a cut.

Customers attribute its success to customer loyalty and the place feeling like a “home to many people that don’t have home,” says Finister, who lives on the “4-7” block, but says he comes in almost every to check in with everybody. “To me, it’s a safe environment,” he says.

Finister has experienced up close how important the community at the barbershop and around 45th Street is to him. “When I got shot on this block a few years ago, people know it was Zell. So they made sure they kept up to date with how I was doing,” he says, not wanting to elaborate more on the event.

Ware agreed. He doesn’t see his clients as customers, but “they’re family. I call most of these young guys here nephews,” he says. “I’m kind of the eyes for some of the parents,” he continues, laughing.

Ware says he will work there “‘till I can’t no more.”

Photo by Basil D Soufi
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