Last Thursday around noon, I stopped in to say hi for the first time in ages (yeah, the pandemic) to the dynamic Brigitte 'Gigi', Lady Barber, at Ebony Barber Shop Evanston, 1702 Dodge.
That's the shop with the powerful wooden sculpture of the first freed Haitian slave in the window.
Gigi's father, the late Marshall Giles, brought the hand-carved piece back from Haiti in the 1960s. It's been Ebony Barbershop's symbol since 1962, when Marshall Giles opened the shop for business.
"When that sculpture's gone, it means we're gone," says Gigi.
Marshall learned his art from the famous Sam Johnson, who founded Church Street Barber Shop. Now located at 1905 Church Street, it was one of Evanston's very first Black barber shops.
Marshall (below in his younger days and in his older years) handed down the talent and trade to Gigi, and one of Gigi's two daughters, Kandi, is a hair stylist too (her studio, Ikandi hair studio, is located at 1705 Central Street).
My visit to Ebony started off during a short lull, so I had time to chat with Gigi, 62, as she folded clean wash cloths, but soon the shop was (literally) buzzing.
I'll write about that conversation in another post.
Meantime, as chairs filled, I met barbers Kodak (left), Relodabarber, and Greg Jackson, all in their 30s, who work their hair magic alongside Gigi.
I discovered (did you know this?) that the internationally known red, white and blue barbershop sign hails from bygone days when barbers also pulled teeth, let blood, and served as doctors in other ways.
"The blue is for the veins, the red is for the blood," Gigi told me.
"And the white," Kodak added, "is for the bandages."
Though barbers aren't doctors today, Kodak said they still "put people back together."
"They come in here looking dusty and torn down, feeling in bad spirit, and we turn them around and they see the new face I've given them and ...," he laughs.
"I only get my hair cut every three weeks to a month," says Relodabarber's client Kevin Wade, a three-year Evanston resident who's studying acting in London.
"When I come in here, and I get a fresh cut. I feel brand new."
Gigi and Greg Jackson say they're like therapists.
"I listen," Gigi says. "I know every story."
Greg says many people come to the barber shop not just for a hair cut, but for conversation. "Kids, adults, when you sit in this chair and you're comfortable with me, we're like best friends," he says.
Men, women, and children come to Ebony from around the corner and, like Gigi's client Jimmie Lee, 73, as far away as Chicago's south and west sides. Lee, a violence interrupter with UCAN Chicago, has been driving the 45 minutes to Ebony from Chicago's west side for decades.
"You treat people right, they come from everywhere," says Gigi.
Located in Evanston's 5th ward, Ebony was exclusively a Black barber for many years as a result of racial segregation. Today, as the 5th ward diversifies (and gentrifies), Gigi says she and the other barbers serve every type of client.
"All genders, all races, all ages, all ethnicities," Gigi says. "You just have to have hair. Or at least a head."
Greg says he believes he was meant to be a barber. Both his uncles did hair, but more than that, he says he was raised at Ebony.
"I literally grew up in here. I was always here," he says. "It's what I seen."
Greg says a barber has to be very patient.
"People come in here with a picture of a hairstyle, but their hair is completely the wrong texture for it," he laughs.
"Or, their hair is incredibly short," Gigi interrupts shaking her head and laughing, "but they want a high top!"
Gigi believes you have to have a good heart for barbering.
And that she does.
Each summer, Ebony barbers offer free back-to-school haircuts and styling to anywhere from 60 to 100 kids who can't afford a haircut.
"We also give them school supplies and things like that," she says.
This year Gigi is hoping to be able to give out tablets to the children.
"We always give paper, pens, and pencils but they don't use them no more," she laughs.
Each winter, the barber shop hosts a community coat drive for hundreds of kids.
"But what people don't know," Gigi says, "is we help people on a direct basis every day. Feed them, give them money, a ride home."
What makes barbering satisfying, I ask.
"When they get out the chair with a smile on their face and they keep coming back and say, 'remember the cut you gave me last time? That's what I want" she says.
Meet Gigi, Greg, Kodak, Relodabarber, Jimmie, and Kevin in the short video below!
The music in the video is by the late, great Junior Mance, who grew up in Evanston.
Stay tuned for more posts about Gigi and her family, coming soon.