A salon located on the outskirts of Main Campus attracts both community members and students.
At 1428 West Cecil B. Moore Ave., where Main Campus ends and the local neighborhood begins, lies an unofficial Mecca for all who seek friendly conversation, an argument about sports, somewhere to hang out or just a place for a good haircut.
Aptly named Mecca Unisex Hair Salon, the shop, opened by Philadelphia native Henry Collins in 1994, has weathered changes in the community and the economy, as well as its personnel and clientele. But it remains a local staple that’s kept its doors open for 15 years.
“I’ve met some of my best friends here, gotten my Eagles tickets through here, gotten iPods, socks. There’s a guy that comes in selling turtles,” said a barber who goes by Marlik and has been cutting hair in the shop for the last three years. “I got my first haircutting job here, and I couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.”
Collins, who opened the shop with nothing but a natural sense for business, some money saved and a knowledge of cutting hair, relishes the fact that Mecca has become not just an example of a local African-American-owned business, but also a place where people from any background can come for a good time – and, of course, a great haircut.
“We’ve got the best of both worlds here,” said Collins, who also goes by Hamid. “The neighborhood feels like we’re in the neighborhood, and the students feel like we’re on campus. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else in the city, really.”
Coley Newkirk, who’s worked at Mecca for 12 years, said he feels at home in the shop. Newkirk grew up two blocks from the shop, at 18th Street and Montgomery Avenue, but he said he spends more time at the shop than at his home.
“I’ve got a lot of friends that hang out here, and it’s like a family in here,” Newkirk said. “It’s really like a home away from home.”
Newkirk said he believes he’d have business with or without the influx of university students, but Marlik said he notices when the students leave Main Campus for the summer and is glad to have them around.
“I’d say it’s one hundred thousand million percent better when the students are around,” he said. “It’s like nature. When they’re gone, everything goes into hibernation, but when they come back, it’s like flowers blossoming and the sun shining.”
That’s not to say the store doesn’t have enough clientele. At any given time, one can walk in and see as many as 10 barbers and multiple stylists. Both Malik and Newkirk said the shop’s business is like a roller coaster, and Collins explained the recession’s effect on the shop.
“Even with the economy like it is, we still have up months and down months,” he said. “You can’t really predict what’s going to happen. You’ve just got to let the pieces fall where they land and make sure you stay consistent. Everybody in the shop has got to be sharp and have good character or else they wouldn’t be working here.”
Collins is stationed in the middle as one of Mecca’s busiest barbers. After opening Mecca 15 years ago, his entrepreneurial sense led him to further endeavors, and he now owns four daycare centers and multiple properties in the city.
“From what I hear, people come in and tell me, ‘You’re a role model to the neighborhood, to society, keep up the good work.’ And I really do try and be positive influence in the shop, as a guy that’s worked hard, doesn’t do drugs and is honest and has faith,” he said.
“[Other barbers] look up to me, but I’m also just one of the guys.”
There are no official shop rules, but the barbers try to police each other, not allowing cursing, strictly sports or appropriate shows on the televisions and no fighting, beyond the friendly banter.
“I build the business based on ‘would I let my kids come here?’” said Collins, who has six children.
With his businesses, Collins said he hopes to become a “legitimate self-made millionaire, from nobody giving me anything and based on all legal and righteous money and then, make a blueprint to help the next man out.”
Whatever the shop’s employees are doing, it brings people back.
Travis Wolfe graduated from Temple in 2009 with a degree in criminal justice and first started going to the barbershop in 2002. He still goes regularly, though he now lives in Northeast Philadelphia.
“I go back because of the atmosphere, to see the friend’s I’ve made there, and it’s always fun to hear the colorful conversation between the barbers and patrons,” Wolfe said. “Also, I feel comfortable there. I feel like the shop welcomes anybody, regardless of faith or ethnic background, and I like that.”
Mark Laessig, a sophomore business major, had his first Mecca experience a week ago.
“I went based on a friend’s recommendation,” Laessig said. “Based on other places I’ve been, I just thought it was really fun and friendly in there. And I’ll definitely go back because they did a great job cutting my hair.”
Mecca promotes itself to both the students and local community members, but those aren’t the only people that walk through the doors.
“We’ve had too many celebrities to even count,” Collins said. “Mike Vick was in here recently, Bernard Hopkins, Brian Westbrook. We’ve had the mayor, people running for governor, ESPN wanted to film a sports show in here. We just feel blessed that people show us love.”
Mecca shows love back.
“When Hurricane Katrina happened, a lot of people came up here, and we gave them free haircuts,” Newkirk said. “Sometimes I give free cuts to people I know that have just got out of jail or little kids who I see walking by that haven’t gotten a cut in a while. It makes me feel good.”
Gabriel Katz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.