At one Germantown barbershop, haircuts are not the only draw

    From the outside, Philadelphia Hair Co. blends right into the plethora of other barbershops and hair salons lining Germantown Avenue. A montage of event posters covers the window front below a gaudy, neon-red lit sign that spells out the shop’s name in all capital letters.

    However, walk inside and spend a few hours with the barbers and one can see why its regulars adamantly claim Philadelphia Hair Co. is not just another Germantown barbershop.

    “I’d say this is the premiere barbershop in Philadelphia as a whole,” said Diego Ochowa, a barber at Philadelphia Hair Co. who left his own Germantown barbershop a year and a half ago to come work for Mark Lightfoot, the shop’s owner.

    Lightfoot opened up the shop at 5805 Germantown Ave. just over 20 years ago, and it’s been thriving ever since. Today, the place not only employs former barbershop owners but serves them as customers as well.

    More than a neighborhood spot

    Timothy Lewis, the owner of In Style Barber and Beauty located in South Philadelphia, said he first heard about Lightfoot’s shop 18 years ago through word of mouth. Since then, and despite a move more than an hour away to Delaware, he continues to come on his day off every single week.

    “Once I find a barber I like I stay with them, and for me, that’s this place,” Lewis said. “Appearance means a lot. Customers see you with your haircut, and it makes them want that. So for me, my appearance is important to keep my clientele, and with that, I need a barbershop I can trust.”

    Lightfoot said he’s used to having people travel lengthy distances to come to his barbershop, mentioning three guys who used to carpool every week from Virginia and a current client who takes public transportation weekly from New York City to Philadelphia Hair Co. just to get his haircut.

    “It’s a culture. You get personalized. You get so familiar with your barber that you just want them to do your hair,” said Lightfoot as he smoothed out the short curls of one of his regulars with the worn yellow toothbrush in his left hand.

    However, it’s not only customers who are doing all the traveling. In the past, Lightfoot himself has been flown out to various locations reaching as far as California just to give a haircut.

    “Once you have a barber, you don’t want a change. You sit down in the chair, and you know you’re getting what you want,” said Lightfoot, who has also built a resume of celebrity clients. “At one point we were doing the whole Eagles team.”

    Lightfoot said he has also cut given haircuts to a handful of Sixers players and various entertainers, including Wesley Snipes and Luther Vandross. On occasion, he has been taken to New York City to cut Denzel Washington’s hair, a customer he met through a mutual friend and who he now serves on occasion when Washington visits the East Coast.

    “They turn into a regular client. In the beginning you’re fascinated, but I’ve been doing it for so long it’s just regular now,” said Lightfoot in reference to serving customers viewed as celebrities.

    A cultural thing

    Lightfoot said that the general clientele his barbershop serves is about 95 percent African American. “It’s not just a reflection of this area, but more a cultural thing,” Lightfoot said. “In the black community, blacks usually choose blacks to do their hair. But that’s every culture. It’s not that one can’t do another culture, but we know each other’s hair type.”

    The shop’s 15 chairs and two washing stations are almost always in use. Six TVs are stationed across the walls, including one 55-inch flatscreen in the waiting room at the back of the shop. However, it’s the conversation, not the televisions, that seems peak customers’ interest.

    “A lot of people come in for the conversation,” said Raven Burke, a designated hair-washer at Philadelphia Hair Co. “Some guys really don’t need their haircut. You have some who come in twice a week to get their haircut, but really I think it’s just because they like the conversation.”

    Burke said she started working at the shop four months ago and that the experience so far has already helped to open her up as a person.

    “I’ve learned that people aren’t so bad. At first, I wasn’t totally a people person, but coming here and meeting so many different kinds of people has made me learn to love working with people,” she said.

    Burke said she particularly enjoys seeing the people who come in looking distressed walk out the door with a smile after simply engaging in ritual barbershop conversation.

    “I have realized men can entertain a lot of different kinds of conversation topics,” Burke said. “The life of a barbershop is pretty fascinating because you get the perspective of so many different personalities. You get the older people who want to share their stories, the people who want to tell you all about their religion, the guys who want to talk about politics or fashion. I never knew men were into so many different things.”

    “Some of the stories I hear are just amazing”

    However, it’s the children that come in who really amaze Burke. Burke described that even among the children, different personality types notably shine through. She recounted her experiences with boys who were inherently curious and would ask questions like how to give a proper hair wash, and the boys who would come in scared and would need to be talked through their haircut. Then, there are always the boys with the wild imaginations who could talk for hours.

    “Some of the stories I hear are just amazing,” she said.

    There was one little boy in particular who Burke recalled coming in and telling her he didn’t feel like anyone listened to him at home. Then, he proceeded to tell her everything that was going on in his life. The boy told Burke all about his grandma who had just died and his brother who was recently sent to jail.

    “It was so incredible a 6-year-old has so much going on,” Burke recounted. “He was so young but had so much on his mind.”

    A family environment

    For Lightfoot, ensuring that his shop has a family environment is definitely a priority of his.

    “There’s nothing vulgar going on here. It’s a place where everyone can feel comfortable,” Lightfoot said, working a blow dryer through his current customers beard. “I saw what some other businesses were doing and just decided I didn’t want to be like that. My mother hangs out here too, which plays a big role.”

    For customer Matthew Hollis, it’s this kind of environment that makes Philadelphia Hair Co. special to him.

    “There’s not a lot of nonsense here. They keep the young guys that come in here in check too,” Hollis said while sitting in the waiting room just a few feet from a white sign spelling out “no cursing” in all capital, bright orchid letters. “In any barbershop you’re going to get the conversation, but here’s there’s not a lot of negative talk or vulgar language. He were just talk about guy stuff.”

    The friendly environment helps to give Philadelphia Hair Co. a positive reputation. Many of the regular customers said the reason they first started coming to the shop was because of multiple references received through word of mouth.

    “The conversation here with all the barbers keeps me here,” customer Don Thomas said. “We talk about everything from religion to politics to current events to what’s going on in the community.”

    Come for a haircut, stay for the conversation

    Barber Ochowa said a lot of customers view the experience as a relaxing one where they have the opportunity to simply unwind and take a portion of their day to socialize. Ochowa said the average conversation time after a haircut is typically around 15 minutes with many customers often lingering longer than that.

    “A lot of barbers have a gregarious personality,” Ochowa said, referencing that a version of this kind of social environment can be found at many of the barbershops in Germantown. Ochowa said that the barbershops in the area have established themselves as welcoming places to hang out, which is why so many of them can appear to stay busy. However, Ochowa said he also believes that there’s a tendency in the Germantown community for men to place an emphasis on staying exceptionally groomed.

    “I was born in a time where men were really meticulous about their appearance. Men would get their hair done and their nails groomed regularly. It’s been reduced because of the economic times, but I think being well-groomed remains an emphasis in this community,” the Germantown native said. “There’s a culture in this area for the men to be well-kept. I think it’s a personality trait of this region and something that’s always been inherent to the Germantown community.”

    Lightfoot said he hopes that the demand for barbershops in the Germantown area will persist so that Philadelphia Hair Co. can continue to thrive, enabling him to one day pass the shop down to his son. The 15-year-old has steadily been building his own dedicated interest in doing hair and already has a small clientele of his own.

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    Hattie Cheek and Grace Dickinson are students at Temple University. Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a NewsWorks content partner, is an initiative of the Temple Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab.

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