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Racial harmony in Minnesota? Take a seat at this barbershop

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Dominic Warren at the Mall of America location.
Final Cut owner and founder Dominic Warren cuts Lyle Eszlinger's hair in the Mall of America location in Bloomington, Minn., on Saturday Dec. 17, 2016.
Evan Frost | MPR News

It's Sama Sandy's turn at Final Cut Sports Barbershop in Rosedale Center. His barber goes to work with a clipper to buzz away weeks of growth. Then comes a barber pencil to draw a hairline, followed by a razor to carefully shave the outline.  

The result: a neat brush fade with a crisp lining — the hallmark of a black man's perfect haircut. 

But here's the thing: Sandy's barber is white.

"Yes, he's white, but he can cut," said Sandy, who lives in Mounds View. "It's all about can you cut hair, can you make me look good." 

Haircutting taboos — like black men avoiding white barbers — are defied daily at Final Cut locations. That's because the local chain employs ethnically diverse barbers deft at cutting all textures of hair. 

It's a business philosophy that's helped break down ancient walls — barbershops traditionally are among the nation's most segregated businesses — and turn a profit.

"We got white people, Asian people, black people, Mexican people, all working amongst each other," said Matthew Wolfe, Sandy's barber. 

Matthew Wolfe draws an outline on Sama Sandy's forehead.
Matthew Wolfe draws an outline before giving Sama Sandy a new line-up on Dec. 21, 2016 at Final Cut in Rosedale Center.
Emma Sapong | MPR News

"You're going to see a black dude cutting a white dude's hair, giving him a pompadour. You're going to see a white dude giving a black dude a bald fade with a clean line-up. You're going to see an Asian guy cutting a Mexican guy. You come in, you see hair," he said. "You don't see the color of the skin, you see hair."

That was owner Dominic Warren's intention when he and his wife opened the first Final Cut in 2007. The African-American barber chose a suburban mall, Southdale in Edina, as the location. 

"We wanted to have a barbershop, but we didn't want it to be labeled as a black barbershop," said Warren, a south Minneapolis native. "We wanted a shop where everybody of every background can come and feel free and get a haircut, and that's what we've got."

While upending the long-standing tradition of racial segregation, it's meant unprecedented business growth.

It's also meant a departure from the traditional black barbershop — a multipurpose institution in African-American history and often one of its few viable businesses. 

The barbershop is akin to the church, a bastion of social activism, said Quincy T. Mills, author of "Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America."

"When you lose those kinds of central institutions, you lose a community's cohesion, you lose this gathering spot," said Mills, who is also an Africana studies professor at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. 

However, black barbershops are businesses. And that fact is often overshadowed by its social role, Mills said.

"Final Cut is a clear example of a business owner who is looking at a different market and a different model for a black-owned barbershop," he added. "It's not expected every black barber operate with the same business model."

'You serve everybody'

In addition, to Southdale and Rosedale malls, there are Final Cuts in Maplewood Mall and Crossroads Shopping Center in St. Cloud.  Warren just opened his fifth location, a shiny, 11-seat shop in Mall of America. It took eight years to get in the mall. 

"It's a huge deal," he said. "Mall of America was a long-term goal so it's awesome."

Warren, also a barber instructor, has inspired and groomed others. 

Final Cut's Mall of America location.
Mall-goers walk past Final Cut's Mall of America location in Bloomington, Minn. on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Bryan Diaz, 31, a Puerto Rican barber, learned from him first as his student at Moler Barber School in Hilltop, Minn., in Anoka County, then as a barber at a Final Cut. 

Diaz opened Elite Sports Barbershop in Oakwood Mall in Eau Claire in 2014 to serve the college. Last year, he expanded to a second location in Eden Prairie Center Mall.

"Dom was my mentor; he helped me every step of this journey," Diaz said. 

In recent years, there's been a proliferation of sports-theme shops in malls and shopping plaza.

"The customer volume from the foot traffic in the mall is way more than what you'd get at a neighborhood shop," said Corey Gleason, a 39-year-old African-American who worked at a Final Cut before opening All Pro Sport Barbershop in 2011 in Ridgedale Center in Minnetonka. "With a neighborhood shop, you're only serving that neighborhood."

Essentially, it limits barbers to one ethnic group, Gleason added.

"If you're black, you'll be cutting black people's hair," he said. "And if you're white, you'll just be cutting white people's hair. But with a mall shop, you serve everybody."

Industry trends portend a growing market opportunity for barbers of color. For one, multicultural shops are emerging as the traditional white barbershop is declining. State data also show students of color accounted for more than 80 percent of new enrollment at Minnesota's barbering schools in 2015.  

Nationally, black barbers are also serving a more diverse clientele. Gentrification in places like, Harlem, have played a role, leaving barbers without their traditional customer base, Mills said. 

"Black barbers began to think about how they should situate their shops in a changing community and what kind of marketing decisions to make to stay in business," he said.

But in most cases, the move to multiculturalism isn't owner initiated, said Chris Burke, an Ohio-based barber and hairstylist who runs The Barbershop, an international online community of 11,000 members. 

Instead, it's driven by style trends, like the popularity of the pompadour, a haircut for straight hair achieved by shaving the sides with clippers, like a fade.

"Right now it's all about the haircut," he said. "Everybody wants a fade whether you're Somali, Asian, Hispanic. Once you master the fade on different textures, are you really serving the full demographic? It's still niche." 

However, Final Cut stands out because its barbers are versatile and capable of styles unique to straight hair.

Warren ensures that by hiring his former barbering students, like Wolfe.

He's got almost 50 chairs in total and a waiting list of new barbers wanting to lease a chair.

"If you want to work at Final Cut, you've got to be able to cut all types of hair," he said. "In school, students learn that but then they decide which texture or racial group they want to focus on. But that's not accepted here."

Deep roots in African-American life

Race, segregation and barbershops intersected from the beginning. Barbering in America was borne out of slavery, said Douglas Bristol, author of "Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and in Freedom." Enslaved black men had to shave their white masters. 

"So that means this is literally the story of the black men's razor at the white man's throat," said Bristol, who is also an African-American history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Coast. 

After emancipation, they'd pioneered and monopolized the industry throughout the 19th century, establishing businesses that became the forerunner of today's barbershop.

But the "black barbershop" began by exclusively serving wealthy white men who didn't want black men in the shops with them, he said. 

"They conceded to the prejudice of their white clients," Bristol said. "It was very controversial."

And lucrative. "No other group of black businessmen were as well off as black barbers," Bristol said. 

They were also political trail blazers. The first African-Americans to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives were barbers.

By the 20th century, their industry dominance dissolved by racial tension, Jim Crow laws and the influx of European immigrant barbers vying for a market share. At the same time, black men were finding better economic opportunities and the disposable income for a haircut and shave, Bristol said. In them, black barbers found a new customer base. And they thrived, becoming community leaders. 

"Black barbers have been involved in every movement of consequence in African-American history whether it was the fight to abolish slavery, whether it was reconstruction to the civil rights movement," he said.

From his own experience, Warren said the black barbershop is where black men of all social classes and ages gather for networking, support and commiseration. 

"It's one of the pillars of the black community" Warren, 46, acknowledged. "But I don't think we've strayed from that."

However, religion and politics — conversation mainstays at black shops — are off the table at Final Cut. 

Still, Bristol said Warren's venture is upholding the tradition of black barbershops "because it involves entrepreneurship, some innovation — a new way of offering the service of barbering."

'Still get the brotherhood'

Warren's customers may not connect through shared cultural experiences, but they connect through another universal language: sports. His shops are lined with flat screen TVs. 

"So grandmothers that come in here, bring their grandsons, can relate to tennis, football, basketball swimming," he said. "It's an easy topic, everybody kind of join in."

Warren didn't originate the business model. In the early 2000s, he worked at a now defunct, sports-theme, mall-based barbershop before striking out on his own.  

"In the beginning, customers would come in and half-jokingly ask 'can you cut my hair?'" Warren recalled. "But there was never any real pushback. They love the diversity. People even stop to take pictures. They've never seen anything like it."

When Wayne Waldera moved to Maplewood eight years ago, he needed a new barber. The Final Cut in Maplewood Mall was the closest. The 58-year-old white man had gone to white shops all his life but has had three different black barbers at Final Cut over the years. 

"They just do good work and they are affordable," he said. 

But some Final Cut barbers have had to prove them against stereotypes, especially if they're white, female or both. 

Wolfe's worked at Final Cut five years and the majority of his repeat customers are black.

Matthew Wolfe trims to an outline.
Matthew Wolfe trims to an outline on Sama Sandy on Dec. 21, 2016 at Final Cut in Rosedale Center.
Emma Sapong | MPR News

"He's been my barber for four years now," said Sandy, 30. "Because he does a good job. I don't call him my white barber. He's just my barber. And I'm always recommending him."

But in the beginning, blacks were most reluctant to sit in his chair at Rosedale Center. While some African-American barbers have historically cut white men's hair, white barbershops have been known to butcher black men's haircuts or flatly turn them away.

But Wolfe's meticulous approach to lining won them over.

"The lining is the most important part of the haircut for a black man," he said. "It's like the edges of a lawn. You can mow the lawn but if you don't do your edges, your lawn isn't done. It's the same thing with a haircut."

Warren is anticipating more growth; he's in talks to take Final Cut out of state. 

Bristol said the longevity of black barbershops is strengthened not threatened by multicultural shops. He said the trend is reminiscent of the 1950s when black musicians crossed over to a white audience.

"It didn't mean that black music lovers stopped buying their records," he said, "it just meant they were able to find a larger audience because they appealed to whites as well."

On recent Saturday at Final Cut in Mall of America, a Laotian barber finished a biracial toddler's curly fade while Latino barbers conversed between customers. 

James Lenoir, an African-American, sat in Warren's chair for a bald fade. The Burnsville resident grew up with the camaraderie of the traditional black shops. 

"Honestly, it's the same thing here," he said. "You still get the brotherhood no matter what race that comes through that door, no matter who's cutting your hair."