Outdoor Barbershop Is On Cutting Edge

June 04, 1994|By Norris P. West | Norris P. West,Sun Staff Writer

On a warm spring day, one customer is getting his wavy hair trimmed. A high school senior waits for a sculpting of his high-top fade -- it's prom night for him. Three other patrons sit in chairs, awaiting their turn in the barber's chair.

All this happens outdoors on a sidewalk at the corner of Biddle and Chester streets. This is where Elrich Smith, the barber, does business every day. He keeps one eye on his patrons' hair and the other on his children, who are 1, 3 and 6 years old.

Welcome to East Baltimore's Barbershop Without a Roof, where cars honk and drivers wave as they buzz along Biddle Street.

"I love it," said Mr. Smith, 41, who cuts hair outside his house in the 2000 block of E. Biddle St. He explained that he took his business outdoors two years ago to enable him to watch his children playing outside.

He said he believes the idea is unique -- at least he's never seen an outdoor barbershop before.

So, how did Mr. Smith get the idea for an open-air barbershop?

With a cigarette dangling from his lips and clippers running over a customer's head, he explained:

"One day I was sitting out here. A lot of people I know were just driving past. It was boring. I knew this could be a way for me to make some money without separating myself from my children."

Mr. Smith said customers have been loyal throughout the years. Many of them enjoy the open-air approach to barbering.

Mark Stringfield, 41, has been a customer for a year. He said he believes he has finally found the right barber to trim his wavy hair. Even better is the fact that it's done outdoors.

"When you're inside, it's stuffy," Mr. Stringfield said. "When you're outside the air is fresh and something always is going on."

Not all customers think the outdoors are so great.

Robert Freeman, 29, would rather be inside because he believes there is too much action on the street at times. But he's willing to endure that inconvenience for his favorite barber and the bargain rate of $7.

"The type of style I like, he's the only one who can do it right," said Mr. Freeman, a 10-year customer of Mr. Smith. "I like a flat-top fade, and he's the only one who can do it in a style that's right for my face."

Charles Mullins, 17, a student at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical School, was waiting for his first cut at the Barbershop Without a Roof. On this day, his regular barber was closed, and he desperately needed a haircut for his prom, which was to begin in several hours. He usually passes Mr. Smith's operation when he goes to his regular barber.

Mr. Smith taught himself to cut hair after he began "dabbling" with clippers at age 12. He has worked at other barbershops and would sometimes go to his customers' home.

"Ain't nobody's hair I can't cut," Mr. Smith said with confidence. "The first thing I look at is the bone structure in the face. I think about what would look better for them. I would suggest things to them."

He said he has learned new hairstyles through trial and error.

The roofless barber said he takes his business indoors when the weather is bad. He said he sees his outdoor operation more as a "community thing" than a business.

"I keep the neighborhood clean, I deal with a lot of kids. We build a nice relationship," he said. "This is something I enjoy doing. Some people enjoy running, shooting ball. I enjoy cutting hair. This is something I think is my talent, to cut hair."

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