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Hampden barbershop banks on 'regulars'; second store on horizon

Lisa Philip
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On a recent Thursday afternoon at Old Bank Barbers at the corner of 36th and Hickory avenues in Hampden, the number of men waiting for haircuts doesn't dip below five or six.

While they wait, customers can sip a complimentary Natty Boh from the shop's 1950s-era refrigerator, admire the eclectic decorations — on the ceiling, there's a barber-themed mock-up of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel masterpiece — and listen to the shop's wide-ranging music collection, from Stevie Wonder's "Pastime Paradise" to "German Shepherds" by Wire.

"You walk in, and you feel like you're getting a different experience than your typical haircut," said Tristan Hann, who moved to Hampden from Ottawa, Canada, last summer and has been getting his hair cut at Old Bank Barbers ever since. "It makes waiting for a haircut not so bad, because you're just in a really nice place."

The shop is first-come, first-served, and as soon as one of the customers takes a seat in a barber's chair, another is likely to walk through the door to fill his place in the waiting area.

"A lot of people ask me when is a slow time to stop by," said the shop's sweeper, Leah Byington. "And I don't know what to tell them anymore."

Since it opened in a former bank building-turned-men's store three years ago, the shop has grown so busy that owner Daniel Wells is opening another location this summer, he said.

The Hampden resident already has a spot picked out and leased in Remington, in an old corner store next to Parts and Labor butcher shop and restaurant. He plans to call it "Old Market Barbers."

"There's something about turning these old buildings into barber shops," said Wells, 37. "You find these spaces that, you can look at them from the outside and say, that looks like it used to be an old barbershop. And that's kind of what we've done and what we're doing."

The amount of business at Old Bank Barbers demonstrates that there's a "huge need" in Baltimore for the services that he and his employees are providing, Wells said, as an alternative to hair salons and chains like Hair Cuttery.

What sets Old Bank Barbers apart from more corporate establishments, customers say, starts with the atmosphere in the shop — from the complimentary beer and the eclectic playlist of alternative music to the vintage concert posters on the walls and the fact that the building was originally a bank.

"It wasn't meant to be a barbershop," said Andrew Zhang, a Johns Hopkins University student who has been a regular for the past few months. "That's pretty cool."

As important for customers is the quality and price of a men's haircut. Seventeen dollars,buys a cut and hot lather neck shave with an old-fashioned razor.

"It's just a solid place to get a haircut," said Eric Bielitz, a Hampden resident who said that the stylists he's encountered at hair salons typically don't know how to cut men's hair. "The focus here is on men's hair and men's haircuts."

About 20 percent of the shop's clientele are women, Wells said, and his barbers generally won't cut a woman's hair if it falls below her shoulders.

Wells' employees like the shop for many of the same reasons that customers do — especially the noncompetitive, welcoming vibe encouraged by the owner — as well as the wide variety of haircuts requested each day.

"It's a surprise every time," said barber Young Choi. He said that the most extreme cut he's had to do was a reverse mohawk for an actor who was playing a villain.

Through the variety of hairstyles, cuts and customers, Choi said, the shop is all about quality and consistency.

"We all want to get better," he said.

Wells agreed.

"That's partially what I believe makes a successful shop. It's not what I want, it's all of us," he said. "We're all in here just really trying to get better."

Wells initially got into barbering 10 years ago after he had been "looking for something to be creative and to make a living," he said.

Two of his friends who are barbers saw him struggling through construction and other odd jobs and told him to give haircutting a shot.

"I did, and immediately, it was just like a lightbulb went off," he said. "Yeah, this is what I need to be doing. This is what I should be doing."

Wells trained in Dundalk, where he grew up, at Avara's Academy of Hair Design, which has been around since the 1960s. The program, per Maryland law, requires students to complete 1,200 hours of training in haircutting, barber science, barbershop management, shaving and other areas of barbering.

Right out of his training, Wells worked at Sam's Barbershop in Lutherville, which he said has been in the same location for 50-plus years.

"I took that time that I was there to learn the business — learn the ins and outs, what to do, what not to do," he said about his eight years at Sam's. Most importantly, he said, is that a barber listens to what his clients want.

When Wells wasn't working, he said, he bought and sold vintage clothing and vinyl records across Baltimore City; his passion for all things vintage comes through in every surface of his shop, which is filled with old concert posters, road signs, Baltimore Orioles' and Ravens' bobbleheads and even a 1935 barbershop certification.

His fondness for collecting led him to the current Old Bank Barbers building, which previously housed a vintage men's clothing store called Sixteen Tons.

"One day I was in here, and I think I asked him a question about some men's products that he had," Wells said about the shop's owner, Daniel Wylie. "He kind of looked at me funny and he's like, why are you asking me about where I'm getting this stuff from? What do you do?"

When Wells told Wylie that he's a barber, "he lit up like a Christmas tree," Wells said. "He said, Hampden needs a barbershop. And I was like, I know, it needs to be in this building."

Wells knew, he said, that Hampden would be an ideal location for a barbershop. He told Wylie to find him a location in the neighborhood where he could open up a small shop and get his foot in the door, with the hopes of eventually moving into the old bank building.

Instead, Wylie found a two-story location next to the Food Market that he thought would be better for his own business, as well his wife's clothing business, DoubleDutch Boutique. And Wells took over the bank building.

"It worked out best for all parties," Wells said. "Hampden got its barbershop, and they got a really suitable location for what they're trying to do. This building is not a retail building, so he wasn't really doing great here. Where they're at now used to be an old department store kind of thing. So that's kind of how it worked out."

Wells was the only barber in his shop at first. He knew he could sustain the business with the clientele he brought from his previous job and with visits from family and friends.

Immediately, Wells said, he started to see an "overwhelming response from the community."

"There was an old barbershop here that had closed down basically the week that I opened," he said. "He was an old guy that had worked in the neighborhood for like 60 years, so all his old guys started coming to me. And it was just word of mouth. And you know it just immediately got overwhelming, and I started just hiring guys and hiring guys."

Old Bank Barbers went from a one-man, three-chair to a 10-man, six-chair operation in three years.

"Opening the shop by myself, I had no idea that three years into it I would be employing nine other people," Wells said. "That's been the really cool thing about it, is knowing an idea or a thought of mine, something that I have a passion for and I wanted to do, would provide all these jobs and work in this neighborhood."

Wells recruits his employees from the Avara's school, and he trains them, too, he said, which doesn't always happen at other barbershops.

"That was an aspect of the business that I had never done before and didn't know I wanted to do," he said. "You become a mentor for all these people. They come in, they learn from me."

Teaching and training are the keys to constantly improving the shop, he said.

"Everybody in here has the same goal, and we're all striving for perfection," he said.

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