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Notes from the White Rhino: Fresh Hair

For Fred Castillo, being a barber is about more than cutting hair

Javier Suárez

Fred Castillo knows that when a man walks out of a barbershop, “most of the time, you feel like a million bucks.” While Fred feels proud of his work, he also sees that it’s about more than cutting hair. “It’s about building a friendship,” Fred explains. “At the barbershop, you develop a bond with the person you see every couple of weeks.”

I met Fred about seven years ago when I walked into a Southwest Side barbershop trying to get a cut and beard line up before Thanksgiving. I didn’t have an appointment; the place was packed. By chance, I sat in Fred’s chair. And I’ve followed him as he’s moved to at least five barbershops. Fred is good at what he does.

Fred decided to open his own shop over a year ago in Lyons and then Burbank, both shops right outside of Chicago. After leasing these two spots, Fred chose to open 312 Men’s Barbershop on Pershing Road near Oak Park Avenue in Stickney, minutes from Chicago’s Southwest Side.

This location, next to a few other small businesses, caught his eye a few years ago. In the spring of 2016, Fred opened the doors to the barbershop he’s wanted for a long time.

“It’s something old-fashioned but new at the same time,” Fred says. While the shop’s design is industrial, with metallic finishes and caged lighting, classic elements make up the essence of Fred’s shop. A metal sign he got from an old, now-closed barbershop, one that Fred remembers as a kid, hangs near his station. A barber pole from the 1920s stands near the entrance. Mirrors, some framed with rugged wood, hang above metal cabinets at each station. Black and classically sleek upholstered sofas with elegantly buttoned high backs—custom-made—sit near the large-screen TV adorned with custom artwork.

But the most impressive pieces of furniture are the chairs. The refurbished Koken chairs—with most of the work done by Fred—date back to the early 1900s. Koken chairs, with their hydraulic lifts, revolutionized the barber shop experience when they first appeared. Before that, barbers had to lift, push down, or spin a chair to adjust it.

Fred started investing in and refurbishing these classic chairs a few years ago. “I wanted to open a business and wanted a nice chair. I didn’t know how to work the chairs. There was that bit of negativity. What if it breaks down? Nobody knows how to fix the chairs,” Fred remembers. “So I gambled my chances, and I took it apart. It took me six months to put it back together. I got the concept of how everything works.” Fred gets the chrome restored and the cushioned seats re-upholstered. He assembles the chairs himself.

At first, Fred just wanted a Koken chair for his station. “But,” he reflects, “I’m the type of person who wants to do things as a team. If I’m going to do something nice for me, I’m going to do something nice for others, too.” Fred’s barbershop is home to eight of these classic chairs. There’s even a small one for toddlers.

Fred emphasizes that at his shop it’s all about the customer—how they’re greeted, how they’re treated.

While he’ll give almost any barber the benefit of the doubt when they contact him about renting a chair, Fred ensures he surrounds himself with a good team. “I’ve worked with good teams where everything is positive and there’s a good flow,” Fred asserts. “When there’s not, it gets boring.”

For over seventeen years, twenty-nine-year-old Fred has been cutting hair. “When I started, I was a kid,” Fred remembers. “I was twelve years old. At that time, the barber industry was growing. All the good barbers we knew about were up north. My parents would never take me up there. I ended up looking at people’s haircuts and just copying them. I just guessed.”

Fred’s mom owned a pair of clippers when they lived in Cicero, where he grew up. He says that she used to give him “a quick buzz” once in awhile. He recalls that he would get a haircut once a year. “I looked like one of the Beatles,” Fred jokes. “I got tired of waiting for a haircut. So I grabbed a pair of clippers and tried it on myself. I messed up myself a couple of times. I eventually got the hang of it.”

One time, a week before Fred started fourth grade, his father took him to a barbershop. But Fred didn’t like the cut. So he grabbed some shears and took some off the top. By the time he was done, Fred says he liked the new haircut. His mom reacted: “Oh, who cut your hair?” That’s how Fred knew she didn’t like it.

Soon, friends began asking for a haircut. Fred says, “Then I’d do it and charge $2.00. We’re talking about when I was in seventh or eighth grade.” Eventually, though, it paid off: Illinois has the highest-paid barbers in the country, according to a 2015 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2005, when Fred was seventeen, a new barbershop finally opened around his house. Through a friend who went in for a clean-up, Fred got a call from the owner who was looking for barbers. “I was surprised because this wasn’t what I was planning to do as a career,” Fred says. “But I liked taking care of my friends.” Fred quit his part-time job at a retirement home and started working full-time as a barber and earned his barber license. When he was enrolled in classes, the instructor chose Fred to teach others how to cut hair.

Fred works from 8am until past midnight sometimes because of his large client base. Around the holidays, a fella has to make an appointment days in advance.At the barbershop, whether someone rents the chair or whether they’re the shop owner, Fred explains, “You’re your own man. You make your own decisions. But you gotta work!”Fred feels proud of his new shop. But he’s not done. Fred says he’ll continue to work for another shop, maybe one inside of his own building. “I want to leave a nice story,” Fred explains. “My shop is a place where you can go, get a haircut, and treat each other with respect.”

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