Too young to spell my own name and too short to sit in the barber’s chair without the Tom Thumb booster seat, I remember squirming and worming while the clippers buzzed around my head.
“Be still,” the barber would snap at me.
“I’m trying, but it tickles my ears,” I would whine back.
I was born in Spokane but raised in Larry’s Barber Shop in the East Central neighborhood.
The only barber shop in town owned by an African American, Larry’s is more than a place to get a haircut.
It’s a hub for culture, a rite of passage for young men, and a meeting place for much of the black community.
Born in Memphis, bred in Arkansas, Larry Roseman found his way to Spokane the way many blacks from the South did, stumbling upon it through the Air Force.
Larry took over the barber shop in 1978, after he finished his apprenticeship under Elmo Bogel. Bogel passed away about a decade ago. He built the shop with his bare hands and eventually sold it to Larry.
But it took some convincing.
“He wouldn’t let me in for seven months because he thought I would run off his customers,” Larry says. “He didn’t have but two of them.”
Larry received his license from Molor Barber College, but he picked up his first set of clippers when he was 12 years old, cutting for 50 cents per head on his back porch.
First-time customers might get nervous about this, but Larry is famous for being able to cut someone’s hair, yell at a ref’s bad call while watching a ball game, settle an argument between his two pre-teens, Maya and Larry Jr., over the telephone and lead a discussion debating Louis Farrakahn vs. Malcolm X - all at the same time. Percy “Happy” Watkins, a pastor at New Hope Baptist Church and a longtime friend and customer, says Larry tends to get carried away in the discussions.
“Sometimes you have to remind him he’s supposed to be cutting hair,” Happy says.
Larry figures he has something to say worth hearing.
“People must like to hear me talk; they haven’t told me to shut up yet,” he says.
Conversation in the barber shop ranges from Gary Payton’s crossover to Johnny Cochran’s cross examination.
The day thousands were rioting in L.A. or the day hundreds of thousands were marching in D.C., Larry’s shop was a prime location for blacks to go and exchange views without having to bite their tongues.
“The barber’s chair is like a couch and Larry is the therapist. People come in to vent their frustrations about everything from police harassment to the Gonzaga Law School incident,” Happy says. “It’s the only place you can go and let your hair down without being rebuked.”
Justin Powell, 18, doesn’t remember his first haircut at Larry’s, but his dad does.
“Justin must have been about 2 years old and he was crying, and he didn’t want to sit in the chair,” Mel Powell says. “Larry would give him a piece of candy for the two minutes it took to cut his hair.”
Larry isn’t quite as sweet to Justin now that he’s older.
Justin graduated from Gonzaga Prep and starts school this fall at Johnson C. Smith University, a predominantly black school in Charlotte, N.C.
Now when he goes to the barber shop he doesn’t get candy, he gets a hard time about his jump shot.
In a ritual that teenagers expect, Larry taunts them about sports, school, girls, or the silliness of wearing their pants with one leg pulled up to the knee.
It’s not like playing the dozens (trading insults), where there is room to retort. When Larry has the conch, you have to grin and hope he doesn’t notice your new earring.
Justin doesn’t mind the occasional teasing. He sees it as tuition for the history lessons he takes with him when he leaves the barber’s chair.
“There’s a bonus to getting your hair cut by someone in touch with black culture,” Justin says, pointing to pictures of Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela. “You get a little bit of history and learn the struggles black people go through.”
Mel notes the African proverb that it takes a village to raise a child.
“Barber shops have a reputation for being gambling spots, but there is a different kind of gambling going on at Larry’s,” Mel says. “We’re laying odds that our kids will make it in a racist society.”
Nehemiah Fowlkes starts his freshman year at Lewis and Clark High School this fall. While fastening the cape around Nehemiah’s collar a couple of weeks ago, Larry asks him if he’s ready for the big step - dating girls.
“What are you going to say to them?” Larry asks in a sly whisper, loud enough for the whole shop to hear.
Then he answers his own question with an idea of what Nehemiah’s best pick-up line might be.
“Hey baby, you look so good,” Larry says, with a hearty laugh echoed by the other customers.
Nehemiah smiles and nods bashfully.
Larry pauses, giving the audience a chance to quiet down, then he feels Nehemiah’s arm for a strand or two of tricep muscle and shakes his head.
“You’re going to have to hit that iron, man,” he tells Nehemiah, who looks like he might weigh 100 pounds if he’s carrying bricks in his back pockets.
When Larry isn’t making those too cool to smile laugh out loud even when they are the butt of his jokes, he’s giving them advice about sports, school, money and how they can succeed in institutions catering more to their failure.
It’s not as if Larry is all talk. He sponsored Pony League baseball teams for years so neighboring kids could have a chance to play organized ball.
“There weren’t any black kids playing up at Hart Field,” he says.
In 1985, Larry asked his friend, Artis Ashe, who had never coached before, to teach studs like his oldest son Anthony and scrubs like me how to win with grace and lose without shame.
At a send-off barbecue Mel Powell holds for Justin, Artis points to a table of six kids, all of whom he coached. Four of them, including his younger son, Preston, start college this fall and one already has been for a year.
Artis sees a direct correlation between sports and success because the values his players learn on the field transfer to the classroom.
Anthony, 24, graduated from Santa Clara University and is a mechanical engineer in Pittsburgh. His success story isn’t the typical bad-kid-turned-good because he finally got the much-needed attention. Anthony’s story is more reality-based: a good kid who could excel in anything if given the chance.
Through his sponsorship, Larry was able to give kids like Anthony that chance.
For many young black men, Larry is like an uncle or even a second father. For those like myself, who grew up without dads, Larry might be their first male role model, aside from Michael Jordan, Eddie Murphy and, heaven forbid, Snoop Doggy Dogg.
Happy understands it is imperative for kids to have other people to look up to besides their parents, because, as Larry puts it, young people will listen to anybody before they listen to their folks.
“I have four boys,” Happy says. “Sometimes as parents, there are some things we can’t talk to our kids about, to be honest. Ivan (Bush) and Larry are two people I told them to go to. Larry doesn’t sugarcoat anything.”
On a recent visit to the shop, Bob Lloyd was laying out a stack of the African American Voices, a newsletter he publishes.
He says he can go weeks without seeing a black person unless he comes to the shop.
“I don’t have to explain myself, I don’t feel defensive when I come here,” Lloyd says. “All day on the job I have to watch what I say … I don’t have to do that here.”
Larry says people simply go where they feel comfortable.
He’s passionate about continuing the legacy of having a black-owned and -operated barber shop in town. Looking for someone to take over in the future, he’s given many aspiring hair stylists a start in his shop, including Theresa Gix, who now runs a beauty salon out of her home.
Even when he does find someone he’s comfortable with running the shop in the future, Larry won’t quit cutting hair.
“I’ll work until I fall dead,” he says. “I have too many kids and I owe too many white folks. All I get in the mailbox is bills and blacks folks don’t send those.”
It’s been said, hopefully in jest, that all of the black people in Spokane are acquainted if not related.
If there is a speck of truth to that, chances are we all met, or will soon meet, at Larry’s Barber Shop.
And maybe it won’t be for anything more than watching a 2-year-old throw a tantrum or to catch up on old times.
Herman Marshall, a health teacher at North Central High School, comes to the barber shop about twice a month, once for a haircut and once for the good company.
“This is like a social gathering; you can talk for an hour, see what’s going on in the community and visit with people you don’t see on a daily basis,” Herman says. “It’s like a home base and we don’t have too many of those in Spokane, especially in the black community.”
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