Watch now: Independent barbers keep roots in Bloomington-Normal – The Pantagraph

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Stylish salons may have a unique draw but barber shops are still important on main street.
BLOOMINGTON — A fresh taper, a line-up and a hot shave are not hard to come by in Bloomington-Normal; it just depends on what you’re looking for in a barber.
The roots of Bloomington-Normal’s independent barber scene are still showing 80 years after Robert Gaston became one of the first Black barbers in town, opening Gaston’s Barbershop in Normal in 1960.
His son, Gary Muhammad, started cutting hair at the shop straight out of barber college in 1976, after it had moved to downtown Bloomington and become The Upper Cut — a beacon and home base for residents and Black students who moved to the area for college.
Davin Garrett, owner and operator of the Underground Barbershop, 1531 E. College Ave. in Normal, finishes a haircut. 
Now 65, Muhammad can be found with clippers in hand working alongside two other barbers at A Kut Above, 919 W. Market St. in Bloomington.
Having cut hair for three generations of Bloomington residents, Muhammad said he’s not ready to retire.
“Barbering can be a very lucrative business depending on how hard you work,” he said with a laugh. “It has also given me a level of independence. I can pretty much make my own hours, I don’t have to punch a clock necessarily, but you do have to be accountable to your customer base. That’s real and that kind of keeps you grounded.”
The American Barber Association estates the hair care industry in the U.S. totals $45 billion. And while franchise salons and barbers such as Sport Clips and Supercuts have become more popular nationwide, barbers in Bloomington-Normal say they’re nothing to worry about.
Davin Garrett, left, owner and operator of the Underground Barbershop, cuts hair for a client at his storefront, 1531 E. College Ave. in Normal. “Clients bounce around from shop to shop and they will tell you the things that they want, the things that were lacking at other establishments, so I just try to pick up the pieces where they fall,” Garrett said.
Davin Garrett, owner of Underground Barbershop for 13 years, said every barbershop has a niche, from the corporate-run to the locally owned.
“A lot of people ask about competition. I think the only competition that people should be concerned about is yourself. I think if you can find enough people to support you, then you don’t have to worry about other corporations,” he said from his shop at 1531 E. College Ave. in Normal. “I think everybody can find their own lane to support themselves or their lifestyle.”
A report by the research firm IBISWorld estimates revenue for the barber shop industry grew about 3% for the past five years. Various COVID restrictions have likely slowed the trendline. 
In Bloomington, Jamonte Stewart said franchises have talented barbers, but they’re “taking advantage of their employees,” pushing them to cut within slim time frames and valuing quantity over quality.
“We’re not at risk,” he said from Empire Barbershop, 1236 E. Empire St., where he’s been the owner since 2011. “Being an independent barber is a lot better than working for a major corporation. I kind of feel that that’s what’s going to happen in the next 15 years — people fighting against major corporations or rebelling. … Independency is not going anywhere.”
Muhammad said he was surprised when those corporate shops started moving into Bloomington-Normal, and while they have all the bells and whistles, “everything that glitters is not necessarily gold.”
“I think the nature of our business is that it doesn’t matter the quantity of chairs that you have, the number of shops that you may have. It’s really the quality of the work,” he said. “Therein is the key, I think: just making sure that you do excellent work, treat that person like they’re the most important person in the world at that time. That will always get you return customers.”
Muhammad said it’s the personal touch of a hometown shop that makes a difference.
“When you walk in a place, the smaller shops, the independent shops, they know your name when you come through the door. That’s kind of the thing that people cling to, that personal attention that they get,” he said.
For Bloomington-Normal, there seems to be no shortage of barbershops, each reflecting a different personality.
Stewart wanted to create a more “boutique” experience, so he cuts in a room separate from the lobby, where guitars and local artwork hang and artisan soaps are available near the entrance. Empire is comfortable and warm, yet electric.
Garrett, who defines his style by his professionalism, has a shop lined with windows, letting light pour in, with bright LEDs lining his mirrors as well. Underground is sharp with clean lines.
Davin Garrett, left, owner and operator of the Underground Barbershop, cuts hair for a client at his storefront, 1531 E. College Ave. in Normal, on Oct. 22.
A Kut Above is the traditional barbershop, born of the westside, welcoming in the community’s steady foot traffic.
“The barbershop has always been kind of an institution in the Black community and when people come to the barbershop they feel like they can be themself, they can let their hair down — or up,” Muhammad said. “I guess you could say it’s fertile ground for any type of discussion. We can solve the world’s problems sometimes, just in the barbershop.”
Friendly service, good work, consistency and respect were some of the key attributes the barbers said they believe keep their customers coming back.
“Clients bounce around from shop to shop and they will tell you the things that they want, the things that were lacking at other establishments, so I just try to pick up the pieces where they fall. That’s how I lock in on my clientele, trying to give them the things that they’ve missing,” Garrett said. “I just try to remember that when they come in for the first time or the fifth time. That’s how I conduct my business just to be successful.”
Said Muhammad, “I am really really inspired to see so many young people doing great works with the hair business nowadays. That’s what it’s all about: passing it on to another generation.”
As one of the oldest barbers in the city, Muhammad strives to keep an open mind when it comes to styles young people want — “no matter how bad they might look to me,” he said, laughing.
“It really kind of makes you feel good when you’ve got some junior high or high school young people come in and want you, instead of maybe some younger barber that is more in their age group, maybe might understand what kind of styles they want better, but they still want you and I’m 65,” he said. “So that makes you feel good when you feel like you’re still current enough to do their hair.”
Many of the barbers in Bloomington-Normal are connected. They’ve worked together, for each other or helped each other set up their own space. In listing off the names of just about every barber in the community and explaining how their stories cross, Stewart said they all continue to learn from each other, picking up new things from every experience.
Cassius Crittenden, owner of the Bloomington Normal Barber College, helped many of those barbers get their start, while Muhammad said some started in his father’s shop like he did.
“They learned their craft very well and they went on to do good things with their own,” Muhammad said. “I think our shop, the Gaston’s Upper Cut, gave birth to several other excellent Black barbershops in town. Hopefully they carry some of the same culture that they learned being at Gaston’s.
“You’ll probably never really be able to dismiss the old-school nature of hair care; that includes barbers as well as beauticians.”
Barbershops have been called the Black man’s country club for decades, and Garrett agreed that the opportunity to build relationships with clients helps to create an environment that garners community.
“This is a source of information for finding out things, seeing what’s going on in the community, the neighborhood, events. It’s a public stomping ground for everyone,” he said.
The barbers also stressed the value of welcoming everyone into their shops — all races, ages and walks of life.
“You’ve got to diversify what you’re clipping, is what I say,” Garrett said.
As a quasi community center, Muhammad said the shops he’s worked in have played an active role in the community as well, including “facilitating formal discussion at the shop when there are disputes and conflict.”
“We are a barbershop, we do service people, we are a business, but we also serve in other ways if we can,” he said. “As I was growing up I watched my father, and it entertained people from various walks of life throughout the years. So I couldn’t help it; I guess I got it honestly, always helping people out.”
Nearly six years after a local bakery moved its ovens from downtown Bloomington to Uptown Normal, the business is prepping to open its kitchen again from a new downtown storefront. 
Sugar Mama Bakery is on track to open sometime in early July from the former Subway restaurant, 109 W. Jefferson St., on the courthouse square. It will close its Normal location, 116 W. North St., before August. 
I caught owner Susie Tod on Tuesday as she and employees were unloading and moving baking supplies into the space, which features exposed brick, natural materials and plenty of natural light. 
“It’s not going to be a cookie-cutter design,” Tod joked with me as she moved a stand-mixer off a counter.
Tod closed her previous downtown Bloomington location, 405 N. Main St., in 2015 to focus her efforts on the Normal location.
The bakery, which specializes in artisan and custom-order baked goods, was first started around 2010 when Tod and then-partner Krista Gaff began baking out of Gaff’s home.
Tod’s plan had been to open the new Bloomington store on July 2, but that date will likely be pushed back, she said. She’s been met with some construction delays caused by the weekend’s storms and still needs to install some equipment. 
Other than adding another option for coffee and baked goods to downtown Bloomington, the business will fill a storefront that has sat vacant since mid-2019.
— Timothy Eggert 
The site of a former car wash on the city’s northeast side is set to feature a new car wash facility, to be built sometime this year. 
Developers Jeremy and Jeffrey Schoenherr want to build at 1509 E. Vernon Avenue a new automated On Track Car Wash, largely replacing the 10-bay do-it-yourself Car Wash Express that occupied the site between 1988 and 2010. 
The 0.92-acre lot sits on the corner of one of Bloomington’s busiest intersections and within one of the city’s major commercial corridors. It has remained vacant for the last 11 years, after the last facility was demolished.
The proposed car wash facility follows a design to house a franchise model of the Tommy Car Wash Systems, including a 110-foot tunnel for the automatic wash equipment and 15 outdoor vacuum bays.
City planning officials approved the new facility’s site plan in May, and the Bloomington City Council OK’d the plan in June. 
— Timothy Eggert
In addition to nearly every other staple fast-food chain, the city’s westside commercial stretch will soon host a Panda Express drive-thru and restaurant.  
CFT NV Developments LLC, based in Las-Vegas, Nev., wants to construct the 2,381-square-foot Chinese-American fast food restaurant at 1901 W. Market St. 
The property was previously used for a gas station from 1978 to the early 2010’s. It has sat vacant since 2017, after the Citgo station was demolished. 
The Bloomington Planning Commission approved the restaurant’s site plan earlier this month. It will be before the city council on July 26. 
The restaurant’s construction would mark the second new fast-food business added to West Market Street in 2021.
A site plan for a new 3,900-square-foot structure commercial structure at 1514 W. Market St. — replacing the old Grand Café West Side restaurant —was approved by the city council in April. A Domino’s Pizza restaurant will occupy one half of the new building.
— Timothy Eggert
The build-out of a new sandwich shop on the city’s far eastside is progressing, with construction expected to be complete sometime in August.
Crews are altering the interior of unit 103 at the Eastland Commons, 305 N. Veterans Pkwy, to accommodate a Jersey Mike’s Subs restaurant. The space was previously occupied by a TD Ameritrade office.  
A $130,000 commercial building permit for the conversion was issued in late May, and when I dropped in this week a contractor on-site said most of the rough-in was complete. 
The sandwich chain offers east coast-style subs and competes directly with Jimmy John’s and Subway. Its Bloomington location will be the first in McLean County.
— Timothy Eggert  
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Construction of the new Texas Roadhouse restaurant on Bloomington’s far east side is progressing, with the location set to open at the end of August.
Amanda Norton, spokeswoman for the Louisville, Kentucky-based restaurant chain, said that construction crews faced some delays because of last month’s extreme rain events, but that they’re still on track to open before fall.
The restaurant is being erected between the former Toys R Us store and Olive Garden in the Bloomington Commons shopping center, 1701 E. Empire St., where Barnes & Noble, H&R Block and Schnucks also are located.
Another slice of the pizza business, topped with video gambling, is set to open this summer on the city’s near east side.  
Lu Lu’s Pizza, 802 E. Washington St., will host a soft opening on July 22 with a full opening on July 23. Preliminary hours are 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Sunday. 
The business’ anticipated launch from the northeast corner of Washington and Clinton streets comes nearly two years after Allen and co-owner Carl Muench first approached city officials about plans for the bar and restaurant, which will also feature video gaming machines.
Contact Kelsey Watznauer at (309) 820-3254. Follow her on Twitter: @kwatznauer.

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Davin Garrett, left, owner and operator of the Underground Barbershop, cuts hair for a client at his storefront, 1531 E. College Ave. in Normal. “Clients bounce around from shop to shop and they will tell you the things that they want, the things that were lacking at other establishments, so I just try to pick up the pieces where they fall,” Garrett said.
Davin Garrett, owner and operator of the Underground Barbershop, 1531 E. College Ave. in Normal, finishes a haircut. 
Davin Garrett, left, owner and operator of the Underground Barbershop, cuts hair for a client at his storefront, 1531 E. College Ave. in Normal, on Oct. 22.
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