What does it take to run a successful small retail business? Ask Charles Blades
As many of my readers know, I was born into a family steeped in small retail. It’s one of the reasons I make a living advising retailers – large and small – today. From where I sit, there’s no job as tough as setting up a small shop and finding a way to serve a community, and keep them coming back. And it’s even tougher today. I often ask myself, what would possess someone to undertake such a venture, when the odds of failing are so high? What does it take, in fact, to succeed?
I’ve been living in Jack London Square – a small semi-industrial enclave near the Port of Oakland – for six months now, observing the communal and commercial dynamics of a place that has been waiting to happen – i.e., get bigger and busier – for at least two decades. Not much happening here, except for the iconic Yoshi’s jazz club, a few breweries, a few nice restaurants, and a smattering of waterside eateries, more likely serving tourists than the locals. Up the block from me on Second Street, across the Jack London Square Amtrak station, is a corner shop called the Charles Blades Barber Spa. Perfect name for a barber, I thought, while betting that the owner was Latino. Turns out that Mr. Blades – originally pronounced BLAH-dez, like the Panamanian salsa artist Ruben Blades – is of Afro-Carribean descent. When I walked in and heard the Puerto Rican jazz beat streaming inside the salon, I felt like I was home, in the South Bronx.
What Charles, age 50, has created is more of a communal space than what one might expect from a barbershop today. That is, unless one has had the experience of the kind of barber shop documented in the media like Spike Lee’s film-school project, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads. It’s a retail experience that nods to the past, when getting a shave and a haircut was not just a chore but a ritual, a respite from the daily grind, a retreat with people who know you well. I decided to spend some time with the man himself and learn more about his improbable journey, now that he’s poised to grow his business with the help of James Lizotte, the former owner of the legendary People’s Barber of San Francisco.
“What Charles Blades has created is more of a communal space than what one might expect from a barbershop today. It’s a retail experience that nods to the past, when getting a shave and a haircut was not just a chore but a ritual, a respite from the daily grind, a retreat with people who know you well.”
If you are a student of business, you are probably familiar with the notion that success is all about “the four p’s” – product, price, place, and promotion. In my experience, when it comes to retail, there are definitely p’s, but I prefer to think that they are purpose, product, and performance. And without the first p — purpose — it makes no sense to even try your hand at small retail. It’s simply too hard to do unless something about the business itself is driving you to do it.
Over the course of seven meetings – two in my home and five at his shop and around the town – Charles unpacked his story for me.
Born in Brooklyn, but raised in Chicago, Charles is the middle kid of an eleven-child brood. If you subscribe to the middle-child theory, you would not be surprised to feel comforted by Charles, a watchful and skilled negotiator of group behavior. He likes everybody, but has an exacting radar for character. He had a good family, a happy childhood, but was toughened to the core growing up in the projects, By the 1980s, gang life and drugs were on the rise, and he got to see some things that hardened him. He developed a mantra that informs him today: “I’m not going to do that sh_t.”
He also felt — like a lot of young men I knew back then — that he was “in the world but not of it,” to paraphrase the Stevie Wonder song. Being dyslexic and artistically inclined, he also felt different. A born raconteur, he likes to recall the time he performed in a high school touring production of the musical Chicago. When the show played at his school, he froze backstage, terrified he would be ridiculed by his football team peers (he was a dancer and an athlete). They had no idea that “Shannon” (as he was known back then; it’s his middle name) was a dancer. A good dancer. The football team screamed, “Shannon, Shannon!” His sister yelled, “that’s my brother!”
First gig is in “show business”
More about that dancing thing, in a bit. Charles completed two years at Columbia College, an arts school in Chicago, when he grew tired of the long winters and dreamt of warmer climes. On a coin toss, he opted for LA and boarded a Greyhound with five-hundred dollars. It was a miserable journey, but when he arrived – occupying a room at a timeworn but popular Hollywood hotel – he got a fast taste of the electric and drug-addled 1990’s LA film culture. But it was on the seedy end of the spectrum. Working as a car mechanic (he’s always been good with his hands), he got invited on the set of a porn film where he found his true calling (wait for it). One afternoon, on a set, he spied a male star stroking himself, staring directly across the room at Charles. Not to worry — the porn was just admiring his hair cut. Charles had gotten into the habit of cutting his own hair. So like that, Charles got his first gig … as a barber.
Soon he was cutting everyone’s hair in LA, not just in porn. But bad stuff was all around him. His childhood mantra – “I’m not going to do that sh_t” – served him well, as he saw friends and lovers lose everything to drugs. It was time again to move on, this time to the Bay Area, where an uncle took him in and gave him a new start. He had a child, got married, settled down, made money, bought a home, when everything came crashing down. His wife moved to DC for a government job, taking his daughter with her. It was for the best; the DC schools would be good for her, he reasoned. But feeling lost — he had been so unhappy with his life — he went back home to Chicago, where his mom had come to Jesus with him during a car ride, on the highway. “Stop your crying,” she scolded. “Just be the best father you can … wherever you are.”
It was a hard moment. But it helped him find purpose. He moved back to the Bay Area, committing to being a good long-distance father, but also to doing something that brought him joy. He had fallen in love with the idea of becoming a great barber. For Charles, there was nothing like the pleasure of helping someone look their best, feel their best, and resist the forces that bring so many young men down, particularly young men of color. He went to barber school, slept in the shops where he really learned his practice, and saved money so he could buy his own shop, a “clean and sacred place, like a church.” The day he picked up the keys for his storefront in Oakland — sixteen years ago — he pasted paper over the windows, sat down in the middle of the floor, and wept. He was home, finally.
Product and Performance
Today, Charles is running one of the most vibrant small businesses in Jack London Square. Like the barber shops of old, his is a communal space, but not serving any one community, but all. White, Asian, Black, LBTQ, you can see anyone from any walk of life on a typical afternoon at the shop transported by the jazz and both old-timey barber-shop and spiritual bric-a-brac. It’s a melting pot made possible by a modern, pan-cultural experience of hair care. And there are plans for expansion and a new product line. I wrote to James Lizotte – Charles’s new partner, of People’s Barber fame – asking about the products, a “paraben-free, vegan product line was designed with all hair and skin types in mind.” The most popular products to date are CBB’s Beard Oil, Argon Pomade, and Sea Salt Spray — tactile and olfactory complements to the Charles Blades experience.
But, again, I feel compelled to comment further “from where I sit.” I mean, from where I sit as a customer in one of the chairs at the spa. The real product is being here, and knowing Charles. This is not simply a barber shop with its own line of hair and skin products. This is a space of spiritual connection and, yes, performance. On a typical day, Charles glides across his salon like a dancer, floating like a butterfly, the Muhhamad Ali of haircutting. And his stage extends beyond his shop. He cuts a fine profile in Oakland, with his wide-brim Carribean hats, and guayabera-like shirts and beach-style shorts. You might see his silver 2005 430sc Lexus parked outside his shop on any day except Wednesday (his one day off), a gift from one of his most generous fans.
Yes, that beautiful shiny car was a gift. As I said, Charles likes everybody, and everybody likes Charles. His flock are not just the residents of Jack London Square, but, increasingly, from other parts of the Bay Area, as his salon becomes a destination in a place that really needs one. With Lizotte as his rhythm section – providing an operational backbone for the growing business – Charles is now doing what he wants to do, perhaps what he was meant to do, if you believe in fate. “He’s the perfect front man for this jazz band’.” But he’s a holy man, this jazzman, Charles. He’s the Pope of Jack London Square.