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African-American Salons Deal with Cultural Shifts

3/3/2014, 10:16 a.m.

When high school prom season rolls in this year, the owner of Razzle Dazzle, an African-American hair salon in Teaneck, would love to see full appointment books and lines out the door, as he enjoyed years ago.

For well over a decade, Ronald Reid counted on the rush of customers for these special occasions, until, he said, salons run primarily by immigrants from the Dominican Republic flooded the market and poached many of his clients, offering them in-and-out service and cheaper prices.

Reid's business is among scores of black hair salons and independent stylists in North Jersey that say they're losing a once-loyal clientele because of a waning tradition of black customers patronizing black-owned businesses over white and Hispanic establishments. But experts tell The Record (http://bit.ly/1hb9EbW) that a failure to adapt to changes in business needs is what is hurting hair salons and barbershops that long had been a vehicle for upward mobility and passage into the middle class.

The result can be a ripple effect, as these businesses often serve a greater economic benefit to the black community, funding other endeavors to help build wealth and stability in neighborhoods, experts said.

Although data and research on small businesses show minority entrepreneurship increasing nationally within the last decade, particularly in skill-intensive services, black stylists like Reid say fewer black customers place value in salons' cultural legacy.

"They're running over to the Dominicans because their paychecks have been shorter, I understand that,'' Reid said. "But what they (African-Americans) have really lost is a sense of self.''

Black hair salons and barbershops were once viewed as central meeting places in the African-American community: a safe space for socializing, organizing politically and grapevine information-sharing, said Lori Tharps, a Temple University assistant professor who is co-author of "Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America.''

Now patrons are faced with a choice between nostalgia and fiscal conscientiousness.

"Many salon customers just aren't there anymore,'' Tharps said. "What responsibility does the younger generation have to support something that is more expensive, takes more time and isn't growing with the community it serves?''

A drop-off in customers is in part a result of the economic downturn, which had a major impact on brick-and-mortar stylists, Tharps said.

"From a business perspective, the black salon is at risk of becoming obsolete because of all the different forces working against its relevance,'' she said.

Despite the gloomy forecast for the black hair care trade, African-American and other minority business owners have increased their rank among the nation's entrepreneurs in the last decade, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration's Office of Advocacy. The percentage of businesses owned by minorities rose from 11.5 in 2007 to 14.6 in 2012. Of those, nearly half were owned by African-Americans.

But the largest areas of growth for black entrepreneurs has been in better-paying sectors, finance, business and professional services and construction, largely because of higher educational achievement, according to the Kauffman Foundation's study of minority business ownership in the United States.