Michael Lee, right, cuts Allen Keyes' hair. Keyes has been coming to Lee's barber shop since it opened in 1999. Credit: Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

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It was the Thursday before Eid, and music reverberated through Elevations Barber Shop. Michael Lee, the shop owner, strummed his guitar rapidly to a recording of Boz Scaggs’ “Lowdown.” On the card table in front of him lay a set of dominoes and a notebook full of guitar chords.

His calendar had filled up with appointments, many of them Muslims preparing for the holiday. But his next client was late—which meant he had a few minutes to play music.

Lee opened his shop in the Frogtown neighborhood of St. Paul nearly 23 years ago, “the same spot with my face in the window,” he said, pointing to the store logo with a drawing of his face. At that time, he recalls, the neighborhood had very few Somali residents. But in 2008, a mosque moved in next door. Now, he estimates about half his clients are Somali. He has a mix of customers from other East African backgrounds too. The other barber working in his shop is Oromo.

“It’s a tight community here,” he said. “I went from not knowing any Somalis, to now I know everybody.”

The next client arrived, a father with three children. Nine-year-old twin boys announced it would be their birthday next week. They needed haircuts for both their birthday and Eid.

“You’ll be 10 next week?” asked Lee, who’s about to turn 55. “Guess what? I’ll be 10 next week.”

Barbering and music run in Lee’s family. His great-uncle, too, was a barber and musician. His great-grandmother was a beautician who studied at the school run by Madam C.J. Walker, the Black entrepreneur who became America’s first self-made female millionaire. He pulled framed family photos off the walls as he explained his history. “I’m a Cancer,” he explained. “I hold on to stuff.” Lee knows the star signs and birthdays of most of his clients, too. 

Lee followed the music scene from Gary, Indiana to Minneapolis in the late 1980s. At that time, he said, “Minneapolis was pretty much the way Motown was in Detroit.” After a stint in a silkscreen business, he secured a grant to attend barber school for free. He opened his shop in 1999.

The kids who have come in for haircuts ask about his parents. Lee shows them the photos, and refers to them as his hooyo and aabe—Somali words for mother and father. He’s picked up a few Somali words as more East African immigrants spend time in his shop.

He’s grown to appreciate the diversity of his clientele. In his early days at the barbershop, many of his customers came after visiting the nearby Family Dollar. He remembers being disappointed to see the dollar store close and a mosque move in. But he soon saw that the people coming in and out of the mosque needed haircuts. “I said, ‘Look at that. God put a fishing pond right next to a fishing man,’” he recalled.

As he snipped at the boys’ hair, prospective clients kept walking in.

“How are you, sister?” he said to one woman, who had a cell phone tucked to her ear under her hijab. “You know, we do appointment only.”

“Are you serious?” she asked.

“Yes, I’m serious,” he replied. “We’re booked up all day.”

Lee’s other barber, Hassan, usually takes the walk-in clients. But he is currently visiting Ethiopia. Lee said he is in the process of hiring two more barbers so he can accommodate more clients. “I hate seeing people walk out the door,” he said. But for the time being, he is the only barber in his shop. 

When Lee finished the first twin’s haircut, he sprayed his head with a sheen made of olive oil and coconut oil. A sweet scent filled the room. Then, Lee showed the boy a hand mirror—backward. “Look at it and tell me what you think,” he said. “Do you like it? Like it? Oh,” he said, pretending he’d just noticed the mirror was backward. He flipped the mirror around. “Now, do the Michael Jackson and beat it.”

Lee greeted his next customer. “I’m ready for you, brother,” he said. “How you doing, man? Been a long time, it seems like. Was it last Eid?”

The customer is Elmi Elmi, who’s 26. He likes to come in before the holiday. “It’s the most important time, because everyone gets their hair cut at Eid time,” he said.

Elmi started coming to the barbershop when the mosque opened next door. At the time, he was about 12. The Somali community was much smaller then, he said.

“That’s what I like about this job,” Lee said. “I see a lot of kids grow up to become men.” One time, ready to board a flight to Jamaica, some kids whose hair he had once cut came up to him calling him by name. They had grown up to be adult men with full beards.

“People will cheat on their wives before they’ll cheat on their barber,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of second marriages.”

As Lee clipped Elmi’s hair, some of Elmi’s family members entered the shop. They, too, were hoping for haircuts. Lee told them he was booked. Elmi explained, in Somali, that he had made an appointment in advance.

By next Eid, Lee may have three other barbers snipping hair. With growing staff, he will be able to serve more of the community and accommodate walk-in clients. But for now, he’ll fit in anyone who was lucky enough to make an appointment in advance of the holiday.

“Happy Eid to you!” Lee called after a customer leaving the shop Friday morning. Then, practicing his new language skills, he added: “Eid Mubarak!”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.