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Collection Working in Paterson: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting

McDowell's Barber Shop

As one of the few businesses African Americans could own in the South, barber shops have long played a central role in black communities. The barber, a public figure with professional skills for personal service, is often a highly respected individual with a repertoire of standard and up-to-the-minute hairstyles that express a community's prevailing tonsorial aesthetics. The barber shop, with its informal atmosphere and one-room openness, is both grooming parlor and unofficial community meeting place.

Barber Louis McDowell poses for photos in his barber shop.

There are several black-owned barber shops in Paterson, every one operated by persons (mostly men, but a few women) who are well known in African-American circles. In the Bunker Hill section of north-central Paterson, none is better known or more respected than Rev. Louis McDowell, proprietor of McDowell's Barber Shop, at 400 River Street.

On March 31, 1963, McDowell gave a haircut to the first customer in his new barber shop on River Street, but he had been barbering since 1958. After thirteen years of work at a chemical factory, and with seven children to feed, he was looking for a second job. He chose barbering, remembering his brother and father cutting hair for neighbors in their Mississippi home.

McDowell cuts a customer's hair.

Every day after work, for a year and a half, he worked as a barber's apprentice in the shop of his niece's husband, before deciding to study for his barbering certificate and set up shop on his own. At first he operated part-time, opening for business at 4:30 P.M., after the end of his shift at the factory. His barbering business boomed, he hired another barber to operate the business during the day, and in 1983 he retired from the factory and became a full-time barber.

McDowell cuts a customer's hair.

McDowell's visibility and reputation in the community, as both a barber and a preacher (he was once the pastor of his own church), have made his shop a social center in the neighborhood. In recent years, it has also become important as a distribution point for free food to needy neighbors, further underscoring the significance of barber shops in African-American culture. McDowell sees community service, religious expression, and barbering as interrelated in his business. He says people look to him for spiritual guidance, often while getting their hair cut.

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