The approximately 45 minutes clients spend in Isaac Atencio’s barber’s chair are never just about hair.
At The Salt Lake Barber Co., the chairs face the waiting area, not the mirror on the wall, in an attempt to encourage conversation among visitors. Vintage slot machines and books about Salt Lake City’s charming neighborhoods adorn the new west side store.
Everything is carefully curated with one goal: to bring people together.
Atencio opened its new hair salon on the West Side at 285 N. 900 West in April, expanding from its first location near the intersection of 800 South and Main Streets.
“I see myself as a local community stakeholder,” Atencio said. “We are overdue for change and we are overdue for representation.”
Atencio’s new location ends a 10-year vacancy streak in the Fairpark commercial building that the company now calls home.
However, the executive behind the nonprofit that owns the building was unwilling to let any company use the space.
“We had many offers to rent the space, but many of these potential companies weren’t numerous either [loan] or pawn shops,” said Maria Garciaz, CEO of NeighborWorks Salt Lake, “and we already feel like those companies have a presence in the community.”
NeighborWorks, an organization dedicated to promoting economic development and creating neighborhood housing opportunities, spent more than $500,000 to purchase and rebuild the dilapidated building.
However, Garciaz said she would rather lose money leaving the premises vacant than renting them to a company that would not serve the community.
More than a hair salon
For years, Atencio drove past the area near 900 West and 300 North on the way to his Rose Park home. He and his neighbors remained puzzled as to why the ‘For Rent’ sign never came down.
For him it was the right place for the many business ventures he had in mind.
“I just got tired of wondering, called the number on the phone and started asking questions,” he said. “And before I knew it, we were kind of locked in conversations about it.”
The new store opened just south of downtown six years after Atencio and his business partner Eric Stone founded the Salt Lake Barber Co. The original location proved popular with clients who enjoy chatting with their barbers – a selling point for NeighborWorks Salt Lake.
“It’s a much-needed service to the community,” Garciaz said. “And they have these great ideas to become a space-creating hub for the community.”
A new café in the Fairpark
One of these ideas has nothing to do with haircuts.
The West Side store aims to replicate the ambiance of the original location, but takes it a step further by adding Culture, a cafe with outdoor seating and a menu that reflects the diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds of the West Side.
The cafe is expected to open right on the salon’s doorstep next month.
Meanwhile, three hairdressers, including Atencio, are already building a new community at the salon’s new location.
The store’s website warns that it’s not a hangout for “trendy youngsters” or a hangout for “the good old boys.”
The Salt Lake Barber Co. promises to be a safe place for everyone.
As a Black and Latino-owned business, creating an inclusive environment is critical, Atencio said.
If you visit one of The Salt Lake Barber Co.’s locations, chances are you will find someone there who can work with your hair texture and style.
The shops are welcoming to both locals and visitors, and the barbers are ready to provide information on what’s going on in town or offer tips for those wanting to visit a new restaurant or attraction.
“We’re really trying to be the middle part of the community,” Atencio said, “where people are trying to experience what’s going on around them, and we can help fill in those gaps.”
“If you know, you know”
Some passers-by drop in to welcome the new neighborhood store, and some existing customers followed Atencio west.
One of them is Aabir Malik, who has been visiting Atencio’s chair since 2018. Being a customer of this store, he said, feels like a moment in his life that comes full circle.
Malik remembers growing up in Austin, Texas and making his first trips to a hair salon with his father. He described the visits as a coming-of-age experience that introduced him to respectfully confronting differing opinions.
As an adult, he finds time in the barber chair therapeutic.
“I think Isaac and Eric have done a really great job of creating a place where people feel welcome and are open to discussing things that we might not all want to discuss with people we don’t really know.” he said. “But they have created a forum within their barbershops where open conversation and open dialogue are not only encouraged, but also respected and defended.”
As an added bonus, he said, being a regular visitor to the hair salon gave him a glimpse into character from strangers who might drop in to brush up on their looks — and offer an opinion or two.
“It’s like being part of a club, if you know, you know,” he said. “I don’t know you as a person, but if you like this atmosphere and enjoy the conversations that take place, I can probably get along with you.”
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America Corps member and writes for The Salt Lake Tribune on the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. Her donation to complement our RFA grant helps ensure she continues to write stories like this. Please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking Here.