Brush with fate
Robert Watson pulled himself up by the hair follicles — for real
Published: October 26, 2011
"I'm a black manufacturer from Detroit ..." Watson begins, pulling out his brush. The leery old barber, trimming a customer's hair, cuts to the point. "How much are they?" Watson announces today's $10 deal. "Ten dollars? With the way the economy is?" the barber shoots back, eyebrows arched in an expression that says, "Are you kidding?" A cheap brush usually cost about $3, he notes. "All you got to do is put it on somebody's head," Watson tells him, handing him one.
The no-frills barber runs it across his customer's scalp. The customer winces. "You're tearin' the skin off my head!" he yells with a laugh.
Watson grabs the brush and runs it along the customer's hair in a gentle sweep. "How's that feel?" Watson asks him. "Feel good, don't it?" The man nods and smiles.
No sale, though. "Well, check me out," Watson says, politely, and he steps back out to the street after handing fliers to the few here. Those fliers, he's discovered, are the real source of future business. "Once people get the flier, once they get the word about it, then that's cool." Watson says. "But don't nothin' come easy, that's for sure."
Dishes are stacked in the sink. A scorched pot sits on the stove. And in this small kitchen is a barbershop.
"I always cut hair, since I was 13 years old," Watson says, standing inside his old Midtown apartment, the kind with tight turns and small rooms. "My family has always been in it. My great grandmother had a beauty shop, my cousin cuts hair. I would go to barbershops and watch barbers cut."
Soon after he cleaned up his life, his grandmother offered him an old barber chair that was sitting in her basement. He hauled it home, put it by the kitchen window and started a home business.
He advertised this new hidden barbershop by pasting advertising stickers all over Midtown's light poles. "Robert the Barber" it read, giving no address, only a phone number. Slowly he built up a clientele, customers he hopes to bring with him someday soon to a real shop in a retail space.
Then one day the idea of that curved hairbrush came to him in a flash. "I always said there could be a better hairbrush for black males in particular," he says. He prayed, he says, and a voice told him to go for it.
So he got a two-by-four, chiseled out a shape, sawed it down to size, drilled holes for bristles, pulled the bristles from other brushes with his soon-calloused fingers, and painstakingly glued them into his new prototype. He found a company to mass-produce them, and named his new business Crown Quality Products. Since then he's traveled the country in a minivan full of brushes, selling to barbershops in 14 states so far, and walking local streets like Gratiot, going from shop to shop, trying to build a future $10 at a time.
While he waits for the brushes to catch on, he cuts hair at his home shop. Jazz and old soul play on the living room stereo. Uplifting self-help slogans on the walls are granted importance by the frames around them. A hand-painted wood sign lists prices for everything from a simple haircut and a shave to eyebrow trimming. Another gives the price for the DVDs and mix CDs that he sells. And a placard written in different magic marker colors posts the simple shop rules: No profanity and no alcohol.
Once people discovered it, the shop grew to be like other barbershops — a gathering place, a hangout where friends meet friends and fathers bring their kids. "Oh, we get serious debates in here, especially on a Friday night or a Saturday night," Watson says. "One interesting thing is I cut whites' hair, blacks', so that's when the best energy is, and so that's what I envision having a barbershop down here, having a shop like that, that's mixed. That starts the conversation, and shows the toddlers that we're all the same."
J-Rock stands bewildered on the sunny sidewalk, frantically dialing on his cellphone. He's a barber, mid-20s, gangly and agitated, and somehow he's locked out of his own shop, Luxury Kuts, on Gratiot near Conner. And into his baffled world comes Robert the Barber.
"My man's on his way," J-Rock announces to explain his haplessness. "Damn, I wish he was here right now. He's coming to open up the door."
As he waits for his man to come with a key, J-Rock takes a brush and rubs it his head, and it's like an epiphany. "These motherfuckers cold!" the stranded barber says, speaking not of temperature but of wonderfulness. "I like these motherfuckers. Oh, yeah, yeah! I like the curve."
"I want you to have one!" Watson says, matching his enthusiasm like a good salesman. He means buy one. But J-Rock is broke because his money is locked in the shop.
This might seem another sigh-worthy moment in a long day of slow sales, but a guy like J-Rock might be immensely helpful in the future. Buzz can generate a lot of sales down the road, and someone as enthusiastic as he is about this brush could sell them fast. He too gets a flier. Another seed is planted.
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