Making the sale: Bringing back the old-style barber shop

Aaron's on 7th

Usually, the journalist hits with the tough questions.

But Aaron Taylor, when talking about his career as a barber, harmlessly fired one back.

“How many guys do you know that say they want to cut hair?” he asked.

When fewer than one came to mind, he smiled.

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“Being a barber spoke to me,” Taylor said. “I knew a long time ago – maybe since I was 20 or 21 – that I wanted to cut hair. I’ve been a barber for 13 years or so now.”

Now 33, Taylor has hung out his own shingle and has been operating Aaron’s on 7th at 3402 West Seventh St. for over two years. His eponymous operation, self-labeled a Gentlemen’s Barber Shop, provides all of the elements of a classic coiffing experience – man-style. Images of pugilists John L. Sullivan and Jack Dempsey grace the walls, offering a nod to a bygone era when customers had their beards sculpted with a straight razor while talking about boxing. Modern comforts such as complimentary soft drinks or beer, however, set Aaron’s on 7th apart from other barber shops or salons.

But maybe a bigger difference is this: no appointments necessary. Just show up.

Fellow Aaron’s on 7th barbers Kyle McGowen, 32, and Vonne Kelly, 40, also like boxing, and they watch it, along with James Bond films, or CNN, or whatever else the customer wants. They use straight razors and hot towels while giving a full shave for $35. A regular haircut costs $21, while seniors and kids can get one for $19. If the customer has time for a shoeshine, he can even get one for $7 from Drew Miller.

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Miller charges $9 for boots, but he knows a thing or two about shining shoes. His dad, known nearby as Stormin’ Norman at Will Rogers Coliseum, has been shining boots for 35 years, and he passed the expertise on down to his son. Drew Miller, now 32, has been shining shoes and boots since 1991.

“I came home from school in third grade and told my dad I was hungry,” Miller said. “He said, ‘Here, my boots are dirty. This will work out well for both of us.’ And I’ve been at it ever since.”

Taylor and his band of barbers pride themselves on running an authentic barber shop, without the fabricated Hollywood ambiance. In fact, to see the bare walls that Taylor started with, it is a credit to the camaraderie between the barbers and Miller that there’s any ambience at all.

“I opened on Aug. 5, 2014, with negative money,” Taylor said. “I probably didn’t even have change for the customers. I did the painting, built the back bar and did everything else myself while my kids had to sit there and hate it while I worked on my shop.”

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Proud of his progress, Taylor admits he didn’t start with a concrete business plan. He paid rent and bought a couple of chairs on credit, and he used his motivation to get his business off the ground.

“I started this business on the string of the shoestring,” Taylor said. “This had to work. My dice had to turn up seven. And there were times early on when we did a lot of sitting around and staring at the wall.”

But business grew, and clients returned, and some referred new business. If he had drawn it up, this would be how Taylor had hoped his business plan would come to fruition. However, he had a strong part in creating his own luck.

“I hit the streets and pounded the pavement letting everyone know where I was cutting hair,” he said. “I was fortunate – still am fortunate – to have great support from the community around me. Customers started coming back, and they told their friends, and we grew.”

The team at Aaron’s on 7th knows their customers by name, and they pride themselves on knowing their craft. Between Taylor, McGowen and Kelly, there are nearly 40 years of experience cutting hair. Factor in another couple of decades of shine expertise with Miller. When asked how he keeps track of everything from preferred beard length to percent growth over the previous month, Taylor smiles and points to his own head. Business is done and managed organically, he insists, as he works hard to pursue an American dream while following the inspiration of his own hometown barber.

“The guy that cut my hair in my hometown wanted no part of corporate politics, and I was always cognizant of finding a job that wouldn’t be outsourced,” Taylor said. “I saw layoffs and all of the drama in the workplace growing up, and I saw how it affected people. I didn’t want any part of it, either.”

Larry Walraven cut Taylor’s hair while he was growing up in Alvarado. Walraven is still cutting hair, Taylor said, and remains part of a small fraternity of barbers in whose footsteps Taylor is proud to follow.

“Are there a lot of us?” Taylor asked. “No. But we’re real. We’re not a gimmick. And the chemistry we have here keeps customers coming back. Our business is based on loyalty.”

Taylor saw a business model in Walraven’s barber shop that was sustainable and that he knew he could be good at. After high school, Taylor looked at a few job paths. But he chose his calling and has made it stick. A graduate of Mid-Cities Barber College in Grand Prairie, Taylor spent several years working in salons and other barber shops. He remains keenly aware of the forces shaping his industry, ranging from changes in laws to the business models used by big-box and chain salons.

“Until recently, you couldn’t own a barber shop if you weren’t a licensed, certified barber,” he said. “Now, anybody can get into the business. I had a marketing guy come to me and tell me that I needed a theme. But that’s not my thing. I want to do a good job, be nice to people, and the rest will take care of itself.”

Often, the business lines itself up before Taylor even opens the door. His busiest days, he says, are Saturdays, and the barbers start taking customers at 8 a.m. Typically, the eager are in line long before that, even on weekdays when Aaron’s opens at 8:30 a.m. Aaron’s is closed Sunday and Monday. It does not take reservations or appointments, but customers can call and ask for an estimate on the wait. They’ll even call the customer when their spot on the waiting list is approaching.

Taylor knows he’s running an operation that stands apart from other salons, or even barber shops. And he’s proud of his team and the shop he runs. Without divulging financials, he indicated that McGowen and Kelly were “near the top of the chain” in their earnings. He hopes to grow the operation, but only when the demand and new personnel are right.

“The plan is to grow,” Taylor said, suggesting that two or three chairs might be added someday, taking the total to six. “But the plan is also to grow within the confines of where and who we are. I’m not going to do it the wrong way, or be one of those shops with a lot of empty seats.”

Business ownership has brought Taylor highs and lows and he sees aspects in both that are transferable.

“I’ve had to do everything myself. There was no ‘employee mindset’ where I had someone to ask for this or that,” Taylor said. “It’s non-stop, all the time, but that’s as much of a low as it is a high. How could you not care about something if you weren’t running it yourself?”