After arson attempt, a south Minneapolis staple reopensby Brandt Williams, Minnesota Public Radio
Minneapolis — Eddie Withers Jr. has cut hair at his neighborhood barbershop for 40 years, but a few years ago, he suffered a setback when somebody tried to burn it down.
It's taken nearly two years to rebuild, but on Saturday, the south Minneapolis landmark is celebrating a grand reopening.
In the rebuild, Eddie's Barbershop got a new 'do. The shop has four new space-age looking barber chairs and Wi-Fi. It also has a brand new flat-screen TV, which like the old TV, is still set to the Young and the Restless at nearly-maximum volume.
The shop looks a lot different than it did when I used to come here for haircuts as a kid. The wood paneling has been replaced by smooth plastered walls covered with a coat of Apple Macintosh-colored paint. The place seems bigger now because the ceiling has been raised and one of the back walls has been taken out.
But Withers, 66, hasn't changed a bit.
"This is all I know. I love it too," he said.
You could say Withers has barbering in his blood. As a kid he watched his dad, Eddie Withers Sr., cut hair in his shop in St. Paul in the historic Rondo neighborhood.
"I kind of watched him growing up to see how he did it," Withers said. "And you know like kids do, they emulate their parents and I was doing that with my father."
Withers said his dad taught him some valuable lessons that have helped him stay in business. First and foremost, stick to the hours painted on the front door window. Withers said a customer expects a barber to be in his shop when he says he will.
He also owns the building which contains his shop and a beauty salon next door. All this has helped Eddie's Barbershop succeed while several other African American-owned businesses in the neighborhood have failed.
And over the years Withers kept his shop open despite a few brushes with the law.
In 1979, Withers pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor gambling offense. And in 1993, he pleaded guilty to a more serious bookmaking charge. Court records show Withers allowed a bookmaker to pick up betting slips from the shop. Withers was fined $300 for the first offense and sentenced to 15 months in prison for the second. However, the sentence was stayed and instead he served 80 hours of community service. Withers said the gambling is a thing of the past and he said his shop was never in danger of closing.
But the fire slowed him down.
According to a Minneapolis arson squad official, just after midnight on August 9, 2008, two to three fires were set inside the shop. The doors were locked when firefighters arrived. The arson official said they believe someone with access to a key set the fire. They haven't made any arrests, but they do not believe Withers had anything to do with it.
They say Withers has run a clean business for 40 years and is a pillar in the community. Some residents said Eddie's Barbershop is something of an institution.
"It is, it is a community institution. That's for sure," said Bill Tendle, a customer who has been coming to Eddie's Barbershop for 30 years. And before that, Tendle got his hair cut by Eddie Withers Sr. in St. Paul.
Tendle is the administrator of the dental clinic across the street from the shop. He saidi Eddie's is a community asset because it is a place for open discussions of important news and issues of the day.
Sometimes it also attracts some pretty famous customers. Tendle said one day he and his son sat down next to a very famous Minnesota Twin.
"My son was sitting right next to him and I said to him, 'that's Kirby Puckett.' He didn't know. He knew after I pointed it out to him, but he didn't know before that," Tendle said.
Some other famous heads to pass through the shop include Minnesota Vikings greats like Chuck Foreman and the director of the Grammy-winning group Sounds of Blackness, Gary Hines.
Eddie's Barbershop has also served as the springboard for lots of young barbers, like Troy McCoy, who now works for Withers. McCoy started coming to the barbershop as a kid to get his hair cut. He said Withers inspired him to become a barber.
McCoy said one of the things that drew him into barbering is the personal interaction with customers. He said the conversations can be therapeutic.
"A lot of people are dealing with a lot of different stress issues," McCoy said. "And when they come here and voice whatever is going on with them, they have a sense of release -- that they not be able to get at home."
In the 10 years he's been cutting heads of hair at the shop, McCoy said he's also learned a lot about life and parenting from Withers. And McCoy said he's committed to carrying on the business after Withers hangs up his clippers.
But that day may not come anytime soon. Eddie Withers doesn't sound like he's ready to retire.
"I don't feel old," Withers said. "You know, I feel like I'm just getting started in this."
The grand reopening of Eddie's Barbershop begins at 12 p.m.
- All Things Considered, 09/17/2010, 4:54 p.m.