The following feature appears in the Fall 2016 issue of Medley Magazine.
When Quintal “Q” Stitt moved back to his hometown of Syracuse, N.Y. to work at the SU College of Law, he knew he would have to find a barbershop. His brother-in-law told him about a spot near campus that was open later than most barbershops on Saturdays. Stitt thought he’d give it a try, and on a Saturday afternoon in September, he made his first visit.”I wasn’t looking for anything too edgy,” Stitt says. “I like that Collins has the ‘watch your language’ and ‘keep your pants pulled up’ signs on the door. That’s the type of stuff that will make me come back.”
And many customers do come back. Collins Barber & Beauty Shop is a second home for a community that has been loyal to the family for almost half a century. Like many African-Americans who migrated north from the 1940s and sixties, Carlton Collins Jr. moved to Syracuse from Apopka, Florida in 1963 looking for work. As a young barber, he bounced around from shop to shop until he established his own business in 1970 at a rented space on Irving Avenue. A few years later, Carlton and his wife, Juanita, purchased a building just a block away on the corner of South Crouse and East Fayette Street, which would become the barbershop the family currently operates.
A plaque on the wall behind the barber chairs holds the first dollar Carlton made at the shop. Photos of the family’s elders, or “pictures of the ancestors,” hang on the wall and a spray-painted portrait of Carlton is visible from anywhere in the shop, reminding everyone of its roots.
“We want our atmosphere here to be a place where grandma can bring the kids.”
Carlton passed away in 2014, but Juanita still owns the shop. Sons Eric and Charleston, grandson Tyson, and daughter-in-laws Mary and Kadijah maintain the shop and salon in Carlton’s honor.“People know us in this neighborhood,” barber Charleston Collins says. “A lot of SU students and faculty come here. Even some alumni – people who don’t even live in the country anymore – come back to Syracuse and stop by.”
The corner by the shop was named “Carlton Collins Corner” in July. The result of a project between the Collins family and Common Councilor Helen Hudson, the name is a testament to the city’s rich black history in which the family has played a significant role. “It’s a good feeling knowing that a lot of people looked up to my father,” Charleston says. “We have a responsibility to carry on what he started.”
The Collins have hosted barbeques, participated in golf tournaments with the Central Baptist Church, joined bowling leagues, and coached baseball teams in the Inner City Little League for 16 years. They gave out free haircuts at People’s AME Zion Church on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and worked closely with local gospel radio shows. The family is well known for promoting other black-owned businesses on Facebook and on flyers around the shop. “They are good role models,” says Kirk Savery, who has gone to Collins for 30 years. “They are godly people who go to church and do the right thing.”
Three years ago, the Kennedy Square housing projects across the street were torn down, and the shop lost many customers. The university grew and the community changed. But business is good, Charleston says, which is evident on Friday afternoon when the weekend rush comes in. Even at 5:30 p.m. when the shop is preparing to close, it’s packed. People come to chat with the family about life and spirituality, or just relax and watch an SU game.
“I love how you can come here and get treated with respect.”
Mary, Charleston’s wife, runs the beauty salon upstairs. She has a base of customers who usually come in once every two weeks as early as 7 a.m. to get their hair curled, relaxed, re-touched, cut, washed, styled, or braided.“I thank the Lord that Carlton did this – for us, for this community,” Mary says. “I love how you can come here and get treated with respect. It’s a place you can bring your wives, your girlfriends, and your kids. I’m not saying other barbershops and salons aren’t like that. But here, you get the respect you deserve. You should feel relaxed. Whether you’re black, white, Asian, Hispanic, or anything else, it doesn’t matter. They all come here.”
Jacoby Loury, a master’s student at SU’s School of Education, has been going to Collins since he was a freshman six years ago. Loury says he tried other shops in the area, but something keeps bringing him back to Collins.“I just like that the shop has an old school feel to it,” Loury says. “It’s a very welcoming environment. I know the guys by their names, and they know me.”
There are plenty barbershops in Syracuse, and some go for more of a modern atmosphere to appeal to a larger crowd of millennials. Yet, the Collins family focuses on remaining a positive influence in the community, not emulating other popular locations.
“The only other shop I could tell you about is from the movie Barbershop — and that’s not us,” Charleston says. “But I like that. We want our atmosphere here to be a place where grandma can bring the kids. A place where anybody can come in and get a haircut without being disrespected.”
For $12 a cut, customers get more than a clean fade. They gain a family.
written by Elliot Williams