Grateful Heads

Illustration by Nate Otto

LaMichael Langford grew up watching his uncle run a barber shop and would sneak in his friends to cut their hair. LaMichael eventually took over the business that his uncle opened in 1964, and Langford’s Barber Shop has been a constant in an Atlanta neighborhood that’s seen significant demographic shifts over the decades. Throughout all the changes, Langford’s has been there — both for its customers and for its longtime employees.

We accept people that come in this door as employees as family from day one. You are family. If I eat, you eat, okay? If I cut a hundred dollar worth of hair and you haven’t cut none today, the next one that come in the door is yours..

This episode is special because it was reported by Esther Lee, a writer in Atlanta who recently joined Basecamp as a member of the support team. We’re grateful she was able to produce this story for us. Take a listen!


Transcript

WAILIN: LaMichael Langford has been cutting hair since he was a teenager under the care of his uncle, Willie David Langford Sr., who raised him like a son. Willie opened Langford’s Barber Shop in Atlanta in 1964.

LAMICHAEL: He brought me in as a young kid, 12 years old, shining shoes. And I took up the compassion of wanting to cut hair watching him and at the age of 14, I began to cut hair when he wasn’t at the shop. A lot of friends in the neighborhood, I’d sneak them in the shop and use his clippers and cut their hair until one day, he caught me and asked me, is that what I want to do. I told him, “I love it,” so at the age of 15, he signed me up for barber college. I went to Murphy High School during the day; Brown’s Barber College in the evenings and on Saturdays.

WAILIN: Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. On today’s show, how LaMichael Langford carries on a family-owned barber shop that has remained a landmark in a changing neighborhood for over 50 years. This story is very special because it was reported by Esther Lee, a member of the Basecamp support team who’s a writer in Atlanta. She’s the one who did all the interviews. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 helps small businesses owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents, and files all share one home. And now your first Basecamp project is completely free forever. Sign up at basecamp.com/thedistance.

LAMICHAEL: As far back as I can remember, seven, eight years old, Kirkwood was an all-white community; Edgewood was all black community.

WAILIN: Langford’s Barber Shop first opened in the neighborhood of Edgewood. When LaMichael was still a child, Kirkwood’s demographics began to shift from white working-class residents to mostly black residents. This was the result of federal urban renewal policies that demolished housing in Atlanta’s poorest neighborhoods, forcing displaced residents to move to more affordable neighborhoods like Kirkwood. Willie Langford had his eye on Kirkwood too, although for different reasons.

LAMICHAEL: When I turned like 9 or 10, things began to change in the Kirkwood community. Blacks started buying homes; blacks started opening up businesses, and my uncle always have said, “One day I’m going to move to Kirkwood to a bigger establishment.” It wasn’t about urban renewal coming through at that particular time. It was about expanding.

WAILIN: Willie Langford moved the business to Kirkwood in 1972. Three years later, he knocked down an interior wall and expanded the barber shop from three chairs to a space that could fit 15. They hired their fourth barber, Stanley Kellam, who would serve as the first in a long history of devoted employees at Langford’s.

STANLEY: Just me and Don and Mike — we the only master barbers up here. Me and Mike, we’re here the longest. That’s like my brother from another mother. We started when we were about 19. Now we both are 60. It’s the only thing I’ve been doing for the last 40 years, so.

LAMICHAEL: The majority of our employees — they last. Stanley has been here over forty years. Jack been here thirty years. Lolita — known as Red — she’s been here 24 years. Taqusia’s been here 27 years. She’s a beautician. Don’s been here 20 years.

WAILIN: Langford’s builds long-term relationships with its employees, treating them like family. This same sense of compassion was extended to LaMichael when he experienced personal struggles earlier in his life.

LAMICHAEL: My uncle died in ’94 and when he passed away, my oldest sister, Cynthia, she stepped in. I was going through some stuff. When I was 24 years old, I was addicted to drugs. My family, where I come from, we’ve never been alcoholics, drug addicts, so it really threw my family for a loop to know that I had started using cocaine. I wasn’t raised like that. I always praying families and always had been church oriented. People come in today that I left out there on the street that still gets high. I got 20 years clean. This September 3rd, I will be 21 years clean and sober.

WAILIN: After his recovery, LaMichael joined his sister, Cynthia, to become co-owners, carrying on their uncle’s legacy.

LAMICHAEL: She stepped in and made sure that the business would stand and I came back into the business and she turned the management back over to me. And with her guidance and leadership as the entrepreneur in business and with my management skill, it really works out. It works out. Once you figure out where a person going, you can help them get there. So we accept people that come in this door as employees as family from day one. You are family. If I eat, you eat, okay? If I cut a hundred dollar worth of hair and you haven’t cut none today, the next one that come in the door is yours.

WAILIN: Although Langford’s started out as a men’s barbershop, it expanded to women’s hair in the late ’80s. Around that time, Taqusia Gibson was hired as a hairstylist and beautician to cater to women clients.

TAQUSIA: It was dark, gloomy and it was a standard barbershop just for men, hair all over the floor. It was rough, it was rough, but we did it, but we did it. When the men saw that there were actually going to be women coming here, they were quickly acceptable to the change. Yeah, they wanted a change, they wanted a change of scenery. So we kind of brought in the fact that we should have styling chairs, shampoo bowls. We added onto the shop until finally they gave us the back part and made an addition so that now we have a hair salon actually in the back.

LAMICHAEL: Beauty salons — that’s a place where women can go and vent and relax, get their hair done. I sit back here in my office and I hear stuff from the women’ mouths and I go home and use it on my wife, you know what I’m saying? I be like, “Okay, I’m learning something.” If you listen, you learn a lot of things about what people really want and need. If you listen.

WAILIN: For master barber Stanley Kellam, the beauty salon and barber shop offered different benefits.

STANLEY: I met my first wife up here. I got three children. In all, I got eight. Majority of the time, met all my wives up here. It’s just a beautiful thing when you meet people up here.

WAILIN: Barbers and beauticians are typically paid one of three ways. They can work on salary, split a commission with the business owner, or work as an independent contractor by renting a chair. Langford’s uses this third option. LaMichael calls it booth rental and collects rent on a weekly basis, although he gives his employees flexibility if they have slow weeks and have trouble coming up with the fee.

LAMICHAEL: You got to take a loss in order to have a gain. If you take a loss from people that work for you, over a period of time, that going to come back double because they see you helping them. So if their heart is in the right place, they’re going to do the right thing and that’s basically what keep a small business — especially barber shops — going. Don’t put too much pressure on your employees about paying their booth rent. You know, people that work here, a lot of them say, “You know, I never worked at a shop where peoples let me go another week without paying my booth rent. Whether I made the money or not, they want their money.”

TAQUSIA: I think the people that have been here this long, that’s why, ’cause we kinda stuck with it through the good and the bad. It’s like a marriage. It’s work, but you have to stick with it.

WAILIN: The sense of connection and longevity that LaMichael cultivates with his employees extends to their clients.

LAMICHAEL: On Saturday mornings, we used to have what we call the breakfast club. It was like 18 of us. Six barbers and the rest were clients. We would take turns buying breakfasts for the breakfast club and we sit down, laugh, talk, you know, we would say our morning prayer. It had gotten to the point where it got so big where one man couldn’t go buy twenty-two breakfasts], so what we would do, we would ask each individual to bring their own sandwich and we all fellowship and eat together.

TAQUSIA: The barber shop is typically the neighborhood place where people come together, not only to get a haircut because we have men that have no intention on getting haircuts, but they come in here just to talk. There’s everything going on here, from politics to sports. There are lawyers, doctors, dentists, judges, politicians, electricians, anything, any topic is brought up here and it’s talked about.

WAILIN: Langford’s has also extended its haircutting services to clients of all ages.

LAMICHAEL: Okay, I’m going to put it to you straight. Forty percent of our business is our kids. We specialize in kids’ haircuts. If you don’t want to cut kids’ hair — those kids are going to get grown one day. They’re going to have kids. We’re working with four to five generations here at Langford’s. Four to five generations! That’s what happens when you do the right thing in business.

WAILIN: Master barber Stanley Kellam has three children with his first wife, who he met at Langford’s. He’s a father to eight children in all, the youngest of whom is now 20.

STANLEY: Me being a father of eight, I love children, so I see a lot of children out here without fathers. I just happen to notice them and they call me Uncle Stan and they come in here sometimes. I give them a free haircut or something like that because, you know, the father might not be around.

WAILIN: LaMichael takes to heart the idea of a business sticking with customers throughout their lives, from their first haircut to the literal grave. When Hosea Williams, a prominent civil rights activist who was a member of Martin Luther King Jr’s inner circle, died in 2000, LaMichael went to the funeral home to cut his hair for the last time.

LAMICHAEL: We had Reverend Hosea Williams. I cut his hair after he was deceased because my dad — my uncle — used to cut his hair on the regular every week. And when he passed away, his daughter said, “Well, Mike, you know what the deal is. My dad don’t want nobody else touching his head, but you guys at Langford’s.” She said, “So if you wouldn’t mind, could you do that for me?” And I took care of my boy. I took care of Hosea. I’ve cut hair at quite a few funeral homes, you know. Most of them be clients of ours, our clients’ parents — fathers might pass away.

WAILIN: The street where Langford’s is located was renamed Hosea Williams Drive in honor of the civil rights leader. Over the years, LaMichael has seen other barbershops and small businesses on the street close. Langford’s has been able to hang on, even through the latest recession.

LAMICHAEL: Economy crashed so bad that if a man work every day or he don’t work, or just his wife working, that’s a whole another paycheck out of their household. So if a man’s light bill is due and he only have $45, which you think he’s gonna do — pay his light bill or get a haircut? Businesses closed right here in Kirkwood before my eyes. We have had at least five barbershops open at one time on Hosea Williams alone since we’ve been here and before we got here, but we’re still standing and that’s only because the grace of God and how you treat people.

WAILIN: The demographics of Kirkwood have also started to change. Forty years after Willie Langford moved his barber shop to the neighborhood, LaMichael is seeing many of his black clients move out of the area.

LAMICHAEL: Then they had a transformation of the community. Well, you know, a lot of white people started moving back into the community, which is fine. Our business picked up 30 percent, with a lot of white clients, you know. You know we don’t care about your race here at Langford’s as long as you’re respectful. As long as you respect the barber shop, my barbers and the rest of my clients and your money green, we love you! We love you! We’re going to love you!

WAILIN: For Langford’s, retaining a sense of authenticity has gone hand in hand with being open to change. LaMichael and his sister Cynthia talk almost daily and attend church together every Sunday. His Christian faith, along with his faith in the business and what his uncle established, have sustained him and kept him focused for over fifty years.

LAMICHAEL: Times have changed. A lot of peoples have changed, but what you believe in should stay the same. Now I don’t change this aspect of the business to go with the flow because the flow going to eventually change. We here at Langford’s we stay who we are, okay? We’re just an old-fashioned, down home, old-school, country barber shop. Langford’s not moving. We like rock ’n roll. We here to stay.

WAILIN: The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner, Wailin Wong, and for this episode, Esther Lee. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. You can find our show on Google Play and on iTunes, where we’d love it if you rated and reviewed us. You can also sign up for our newsletter at thedistance.com or follow us on Twitter at distancemag, that’s @distancemag. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the app for helping small business owners stay in control of projects and reduce email clutter. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at basecamp.com/thedistance.


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