'Chill' Returns to Business in New Orleans
JACKI LYDEN, host:
If you follow the Mississippi down to New Orleans, and you walk to the corner of south Carollton(ph) Avenue and Apricot Street, you might meet Wilbert Wilson. He is known in New Orleans as Chill the Barber. His brand new barbershop is a bright light in a city where every reopened business is a small victory against despair.
NPR's John Burnett paid a visit.
(Soundbite of electronic shaver)
JOHN BURNETT: Wilbert Wilson is finishing up a haircut on a 16-year-old named Brandon when we arrived. The style is close cropped, with sculpted horizontal rows. He calls it a black Caesar.
Mr. WILBERT WILSON (Owner, Mr. Chill's First Class Cuts): The black Caesar consists of a wave cut, you know, where you had layers(ph) down in the center, almost a tsunami effect if you cut it right and, you know, the hair is pretty nice and coarse.
BURNETT: The other cuts he does are a light fade, a taper, a side and back, a body brown, and a two-line edge. As the business name indicates, this is Mr. Chill's First Class Cuts. He works alone in a three-chair shop with a spinning barber's pole over the door. Chill is tall and personable, with a demeanor that matches his gentle voice.
Mr. WILSON: I owned my own barbershop two years. And unfortunately, they would have a great catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina came to New Orleans and none of it survived. So we discarded my barbershop.
BURNETT: Mr. Chill's odyssey is worth recounting. Katrina put 10 feet of water in his home and his original barber shop located in the Broadmore(ph) neighborhood. When the flood receded in a burst of entrepreneurial spirit, he bought a picnic tent and a generator at Home Depot, some barbering tools, a couple of plastic chairs, and started cutting hair in an abandoned Shell gas station for the next year. But it was more than an al fresco barbershop.
Mr. WILSON: You know, you want to tell your story. You want to sit around. It was, more or less, a speak easy. I wanted to have somewhere I can go where people can come and talk.
BURNETT: And they came. Clean-up workers, nurses, doctors, debris haulers, National Guardsmen, Salvation Army volunteers.
Mr. WILSON: Whoever was in town, they went to a barber before the hurricane. I was their barber. They talked out their fears and anxieties, and Chill listened as he cut their hair. He suspended his price list and people gave what they could, even if it was only a plate of red beans and rice. In postdiluvian New Orleans, what he was doing didn't seem all that unusual.
Then an inspector for the State Board Of Barber Examiners also showed up and shut him down. It may have been a blessing in disguise. With financial help from an uptown barber and a local nonprofit, Chill found this location. He says, by the grace of God, customers dropped by to help him clean the floors and paint the walls.
About two months ago, he opened the new Mr. Chill's First Class Cuts on a handsome store front on a major thoroughfare a couple of miles from his old location. So far business has been so-so.
Mr. WILSON: Thank you, man. Appreciate it. Have a good trip.
Unidentified Man: Okay. All right, buddy…
Mr. WILSON: Okay.
BURNETT: Like so many local shops that have reopened after the storm, Chill is struggling. The rent is exorbitant, and two-thirds of his former customers are gone.
Mr. WILSON: I don't know when people are going to be able move back into the neighborhood. So I'm just trying to, at least, be a beacon of light for people when they do get up and running.
BURNETT: Whatever happens to Mr. Chill's First Class Cuts, Wilbert Wilson will always be able to look back at the year he barbered at the Shell's station at Napoleon and Claiborne.
Mr. WILSON: Sometimes when we had each our fortunes, things happen. So as somewhere inside of our self, the greatness come out. And that was what happened to me and other people. I feel that's what we experienced (unintelligible) over Napoleon(ph) and Claiborne.
BURNETT: Oh, and he says he hopes Oprah hears this story because he wants somebody to help him open up his own barber college.
John Burnett, NPR News, New Orleans.
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