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Veteran set on opening East Oakland’s first barber college

on October 8, 2019

At the Station 33 barbershop on Grand Avenue in Oakland, Chris Colter waits for one of his clients. This one is late, as usual. But Colter is a patient man.   

He hopes to open the first barber college in East Oakland, and only the second in the city after Moler Barber College on Telegraph Avenue. His vision, nearly 12 years in the making, is the Oakland Barber Academy. 

It’s a slow Tuesday morning at the barbershop. From one of three mounted TV sets, a CNN breaking news segment is playing at high volume. Quietly, Colter, a former Army first lieutenant, dons a black barber’s smock with an embroidered patch that says “Colt 45” and raises his glasses to rest on his forehead. They will remain there until his client arrives. He has a sharp glint in his eyes.    

In August, Colter, with the help of his campaign manager Martina Llunga, launched a month-long fundraiser through Indiegogo, an online crowdfunding platform, to raise $100,000 for the academy. In a promotional video he shot for the campaign, Colter is sitting in his barber’s chair, leaning forward, wearing his black smock. “Let’s face it, not everybody wants to go to college,” he says. “And becoming a barber is a more than viable option.”

Years of witnessing the dearth of local opportunities for young African-American men to excel inspired Colter’s vision. In the video, Colter says that Oakland’s rising housing costs, gentrification, crime and failing schools, all make opportunity an illusion for many. “I mean, how does all this take place right in the backyard of Silicon Valley?” he asks.

Llunga, who was one of Colter’s clients and had experience running campaigns, helped him assemble a small team consisting of a social media expert, whom he found online, and a grassroots organizer. Colter said that he was surprised by how receptive his customers and fellow barbers were towards his campaign. Donations from individual customers averaged $100; a few, Colter says, gave five to 10 times that.  “Everything comes through my chair,” Colter says, clapping his hands three times. “I got all the resources in the world through that one chair.”

But, by the end of the campaign in mid-September, they had only raised $11,968. “We set a very lofty goal,” Colter concedes. But he and his customers are not giving up. They plan to continue  pushing for funding through social media and word-of-mouth, while Colter tries to secure a small business loan.

Kenneth Gray, a long-time customer, says that he fully believes in Colter’s academy. “If anyone can do it, I think that he can do it. He has a management background as well as a military and college background,” Gray says, while getting a cut from Colter one recent morning. And he thinks Colter’s calm and friendly demeanor—ideal characteristics in a barber—would also make him an ideal teacher. “You have to have a certain psychological capacity, because you’re dealing with so many different personalities and you have to be able to juggle back and forth,” he says.  

Al Stewart, a fellow Station 33 barber who has been cutting hair in Oakland for 29 years, says that Colter has a deep understanding of the needs and desires of his community. Not only that, Stewart says, “he was a military guy, and he’s been all over the world.  And that helps him with his character, as far as dealing with people from different backgrounds.”

The military also happened to be where Colter first became attracted to barbering. One day in 1993, about two months before completing his service in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, Colter said that he noticed one of his fellow soldiers cutting someone’s hair in the barracks. “I saw it live and up close” he said. “He had all his tools in the kit, and he faded him.” 

Chris Colter’s collection of clippers.

Returning to San Mateo, where he grew up, Colter noted the absence of black barbershops. “As a black person, you had to go to Oakland or San Francisco,” he said. It was only when he returned home after completing his service that he figured that he would be the one to fill that void.

Taking a cue from that soldier-barber in the barracks, Colter bought a pair of clippers and a tool kit and started cutting his own hair. Word quickly spread in his neighborhood. “I was cutting in the garage at my mom’s house. Next thing you know, I had a full clientele within a couple of months,” Colter said. Hairstyles popular among young African-American men in the early 1990s: the flattop, the Gumby (Bobby Brown’s signature haircut), and the hi-top fade—Colter said he did them all. “I really cut my teeth during a good era,” he said. 

By the time he had built a healthy base of clients, Colter was off to college at Howard University to study communications. Colter said that he honed his skills even more during his time at university. “I was that guy cutting hair in the dorms,” he said with a dry laugh.

It was also during this time, Colter said, that barbering became more than just a way to pay for food; it became his passion. By his senior year, however, the pressures of taking a more traditional post-college job led him to take a corporate job for a few years, managing longshoremen at a shipping company in Oakland. “But I knew damn well in my heart that I wanted to continue to cut hair. I wanted my shop. I wanted to go back to San Mateo and do the whole barbering thing,” he said.  

After three years at the shipping company, Colter decided to make his move. He left his job, earned his barber’s license from an institute in San Francisco, passed the state exam, and secured a spot at Station 33. But he wasn’t sure about the sustainability of his new profession. “I was worried, at first,” Colter said. He said that these feelings are common among barbers just entering the field. “You don’t know if you can make a living doing this. You don’t have confidence in your skills,” he said.

Young barbers in particular, Colter added, usually end up “getting out the game” within the first year. “Getting the license is the easy part,” Colter said. “It’s just up to you to figure out how you’re going to get clients in your chair.”

Although building a client base can be difficult at first, Colter feels that barbering is a constantly in-demand profession. Social media platforms like Instagram have made it easier for barbers to brand themselves and build a broader client base. “A barber is synonymous with being a businessman,” he said.

Yet Colter is frustrated by the way barbers view themselves as “hustlers”, who undersell or fail to dedicate themselves full-time. “This ain’t no fuckin’ hustle,” he said in a low voice. To combat this, he wants to incorporate the business side of barbering into the training program he envisions for his academy. “I’m going to stress the importance of paying taxes, of knowing all the paperwork involved in establishing yourself as a business in a particular city and in the state of California,” he said.

Good barbers, Colter said, can build loyalty with clients that last years. Once you put that drape over a client, he said, the relationship-building starts from there. “You feel the energy, off the top,” he said. Some of his clients, though equally comfortable in the chair, are less chatty. “I’ve got customers I’ve been cutting for 10 years. And the first thing they do is close their eyes,” he said.

Calling it a “time-honored tradition”, Colter said he is confident that barbering will attract young African-American men who want to empower themselves and serve their community. He said that he takes a cue from the rich history of barbering in the African-American community. By the early 20th Century, moguls like Madame C. J. Walker, who developed hair products for black women, and Alonzo Herndon, who owned and operated three barbershops in Atlanta, became some of the first African-American millionaires in the United States. “It’s been here for years, and it ain’t going nowhere,” he said of the industry. “Because hair will not stop growing.” 

Chris Colter trims the beard of a client at Station 33 barber shop.

Colter quickly pivots back to his core argument: young African-American men in Oakland are struggling economically, and he wants to give them a real opportunity. According to Statistical Atlas, which gathers its data from the 2010 census and the 2012 American Community Survey, African-Americans are overly represented in the city’s lowest income brackets, with a median family income of only $36,200. Parts of East Oakland in particular have some of the city’s higher poverty rates, where over 30 percent of residents lack a high school diploma.

In California, according to the compensation data website Salary.com, barbers earn an average salary of close to $35,000, although Colter insists that licensed barbers in the Bay Area can earn much more than that, given the high demand and cost of living. 

Demarea Fort, one of the younger barbers at Station 33, agrees. “Going to school and getting a license is what really made me professional,” he said. Fort, 29, is an Oakland native who moved around a lot while growing up—Fairfield, Tracy, and Stockton were places he once called home. As a licensed barber since 2014, he said he makes enough money to not just survive, but “thrive,” as he put it. He relishes the fact that he’s his own boss, with complete control over his work, and can set his own hours.

Barbering has also opened up doors that Fort wouldn’t have otherwise had access to. “I’m an ex-felon, you know what I mean, and I’m black,” he said. “Even if I wasn’t an ex-felon, it would still be hard for me to get a job out here.”

The money he makes cutting, trimming beards, and doing fades is more consistent than making money illegally, Fort said about why he chose the craft. And, he said, “It was safer.” He said barbering saved his life. “Instead of dibbling and dabbling into all those extracurricular activities that should’ve ended,” he said, laughing, “it was this, bro. It was this.”

Yet studying the barbering trade is still a hefty financial investment. According to a representative from Moler Barber College, the cost of tuition, books, and supplies for Moler’s one-year barbering program is $20,000. This, of course, doesn’t include general expenses for living in one of the priciest regions of the country. To compare, the average tuition at barber colleges around the country is about $14,000.   

Colter acknowledges the expense of attending a barber college, and wants Oakland Barber Academy to be affordable. “I have to set my tuition low, because I don’t have financial aid at the moment,” he said. As for supporting a financial aid program for his academy, Colter said he will reach out to large Oakland-based companies like Pandora, Kaiser, and Clorox. “I’m going to give them a nice presentation, and see what they’d be able to donate in order to help a student attend my school,” he said.   

Colter thinks a lot about what the Oakland Barber Academy will look like, and where it will be. Standing next to his barber chair, Colter says he envisions the academy as a working barber shop and trade school, needing an estimated $112,000 in start-up costs. This, he says, would cover hiring contractors and carpenters, and buying classroom equipment, barber chairs, and stations. Colter says he would also ensure his students have the latest in barber tech: Wahl cordless clippers. He opens a drawer at his station to reveal a deep maroon-colored pair.

Set in a triangle formed by Foothill Boulevard and 73rd and Bancroft avenues in East Oakland is the Eastmont Town Center. Colter says he is certain one of the mall’s many vacant spaces will become his academy’s home. Once a thriving shopping center, Eastmont Town Center has been largely reoriented towards government services, including a Social Security Administration office, a police station, and a senior wellness center. Young men idle outside Gazzali’s market. On the Foothill side, a steady stream of AC Transit buses pull into the transfer station near the “space age” McDonald’s.

“I see it all right there in that parking lot,” Colter says. “Young brothers who need training, and folks who need a low-cost haircut.” 

But first, he needs to complete the paperwork to open a small business, secure a lease at Eastmont, and of course, raise more money. Colter says he is planning on making new online videos and posting more promotional material on Instagram. He says he also plans to recruit students by participating in career fairs at local high schools.

His client still hasn’t arrived. “Let me call this cat,” he says, raising his phone to his ear. The client picks up. He’s having trouble finding a parking spot.    

When the client finally arrives, Colter is all smiles and all ears. As he sits in the chair, everything comes out. Work. Women. Politics. Colter listens and chimes in seamlessly.   

And after the client leaves the barbershop, Colter stands with a smile on his face. “That’s what the barber chair is,” he says. “A decompression chamber.”

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