Deryl McCray was about 12 years old when he realized he didn’t like the way his uncle cut his hair. So he did something about it. “I figured if he let me use clippers I’d probably do a better job than he did,” he says. His uncle let him give it a try, and McCray promptly put his uncle out of the family hair-cutting business.
“I did a good job,” he says. “My brothers saw it and they wanted my uncle to stop cutting their hair, and eventually my uncles saw it and they let me cut their hair, and then it became a venture from that day, where I became like the little community barber.” After finishing high school in Washington state, McCray enlisted in the Army, became a paratrooper, and served in the Gulf War. After he’d served four years, it was a woman who lured him to Albany, N.Y. His wife had ties to the area, so McCray made the move. But the job opportunities he looked into didn’t pan out.
“That’s when I remembered one of the things my mother always told me as a kid: ‘Whatever you choose to do in life, make sure you love it, because if you love it you will stick to it and do your best at it.’” So, in 1999, McCray opened Brick’s barbershop on Central Avenue, the city’s largest commercial corridor, which also serves as one border of some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods.
The business currently has three partners: McCray, Jason Ellis, and Daiwan Perry, as well as seven barbers.
“I wanted a name that is symbolic of structure, and Brick’s just came to mind,” says the stocky McCray, who sports a wide smile as he sits with Ellis in the back room of his barbershop. The walls of the room are covered with autographs from celebrities, musicians, and athletes who frequent the shop. Senate Senator and Democratic Conference leader John Sampson is said to be a regular, as is Ellis’s cousin, Corey Ellis, a former Albany city council member and mayoral candidate. Brick’s has relocated twice since 1999 and has expanded its ranks of barbers.
Out front, NFL games play on flat-screen TVs that hang over the barber chairs. “Every barber represents a brick,” says McCray. “Every customer represents a brick; we put them together and we build.” What exactly McCray has built with his two other partners and seven barbers is a safe haven — a reliable community cornerstone in a neighborhood notorious for its lack of stability.
Outside on an early December Sunday, the crisp winter air pushes bundled-up pedestrians on Albany’s lower Central Avenue toward their destinations faster than usual. This isn’t the safest neighborhood — and they know that — but frostbite is the main concern for most, except for a man in a baggy jogging suit who stands out in the open urinating on the side of the fried-chicken joint across the street. Two apparently homeless men stand outside a corner store barking at each other over some debt while beer sloshes from the paper bagÐwrapped bottles they hold.
Inside Brick’s, there is a different atmosphere than the one that typically pervades this stretch of Central Avenue. First of all, it is warm inside — not only the temperature, but the social atmosphere. People inside greet you personally with a firm handshake. No one is asked to stop loitering; people sit in the big black couches and relax while taking in the games. The only major requirement seems to be the one stated on the sign on the outside of the building, which says, “Please No Cursing.”
At Brick’s, people of every age walk in the door smiling. They pull back their hoods, unwrap their scarves, and hang up their coats to settle in for a while.
“We’re a family shop,” says McCray. “We see kids born and see them off to college and then come back to the community. We’re hood psychologists, we’re counselors, we’re educators.”
The shop has run health fairs, reached out to the Albany Police Department and partnered with agencies to mentor troubled teens. Even so, these men’s jobs require more community interaction than most would think. McCray and Ellis say they have intervened to stop gun violence. “We’ve got kids come in that wanna know what to do, man,” says McCray. “We’ve stopped gun violence. You’ve got a kid with a lot of pressure living in the inner city coming in here and he’s got in a squabble out on the streets, and by street standards the next thing for him to do is retaliate in violence. Man, we’ve gotten in the middle, squashed beefs, stopped things. Kids know that Brick’s is safe — not only kids but men, grown men! They know, ‘I can come in here, get a haircut, and I can close my eyes.’”
Jason Ellis knows how powerful the barbershop can be, as he himself was pulled from a dark place in his life by the influence of his barber.
After college, Ellis’s father passed away, and he was unsure what to do with himself. “You go through a mental breakdown a little bit, a fear of life — what do I do? What do I do to survive? I’ve got training here and there but I don’t want to do those things. So I started getting haircuts from Deryl [McCray] and John at [nearby barbershop] True Images, and I talked to them about it, and they were joking, laughing, saying ‘Man, you can’t cut no hair,’ and I was like, ‘Hook me up!’”
So they gave him a chance. “They were like, ‘Want a spot man? Come here with a client or one of your boys and show me a demo cut.’ I showed them a demo cut; it was terrible!” Ellis laughs. “But by the grace of god these guys gave me an opportunity.”
Ellis says he took full advantage of McCray’s tutoring, and soon his vision of the business went from one of pure monetary concern to something bigger.
“After a while you gain relationships with people; you realize business is bigger than that,” says Ellis. “You can influence someone and be a solid pillar in their life, ‘cause they don’t have that, and they see this person is constantly there, constantly a friend, constantly has good energy — and I loved that.”
For McCray, Ellis’s story epitomizes what Brick’s is about, what it does for the community. “He was affected by the barbershop. He knew, ‘I can come here, get strength and support.’ When I met Jason he was a young man and full of fire, but he hit a wall in his life when he lost his father. He needed something, and he reached out to us and we embraced him.”
But it isn’t just the lost who come to Brick’s looking for advice. Politicians and businessmen come to Brick’s looking to relax and bounce their ideas off the barbers. Corey Ellis says he goes to Brick’s to continue the tradition he started in his youth by getting his hair cut at Herman Cockfield’s Three Star Barber Shop on South Pearl Street.
“Herman’s place was where everyone would go,” says Ellis. “It gave young men in the community great opportunities. If you were gonna run for office you went to Herman’s. If you were a visiting African-American politician you went to Herman’s. It was the anchor on that corner for so many years.”
Ellis says when he goes to Brick’s now, customers take the time to talk to him about “what is really going on” in the news. He says that in some ways the community barbershop is the exclusive news provider for some residents of the inner city. “The barber shop isn’t just a business; it is a place of refuge, it’s a place of opportunity for the African-American community.”
The guys at Brick’s are doing their best to keep that tradition going.
“A guy told me,” says McCray, “‘I could cut my son’s hair. I could cut my own hair. But I bring him here for him to see what I see. You’ve got 10 black men working together harmoniously, and that is something.’”
McCray says that “people see standards in Brick’s in a community that lacks standards, and that’s what we want to do — raise the standard in the community, be a standard to where we are saying, ‘Look, you don’t have to sell drugs. You don’t have to commit crimes just because of where you are and what you see. We happen to be a little island right in the middle of Baghdad, for a lack of a better term. We’re a little island where there is a standard.”
Jason Ellis cranes his head to view the action out on the barbershop floor. The sound of the door chimes echoes into the back room, and the room erupts with cheers or shouts about one of the football games. “When you walk in the door you sit down, lay back, relax and take your mind off a couple things; it’s almost like a country club for the community.”
As comfortable as things are at Brick’s, the barbers there still have their work cut out for them when it comes to educating the kids who come through the door, because the realities of the street do not simply disappear after the hair is dusted off their shoulders.
“People at Brick’s tell me they see a lot of kids who don’t trust the police, they don’t trust authority, but we have to lead by example,” says Corey Ellis.
The problem with that is despite the effort they have put into educating kids and telling them they need to work with the police — not be scared to report a crime or call them when they need them — the barbershop itself has had unpleasant interactions with the police.
In January 2008, an incident with the police took place in front of 16 Bars, a shop just a few storefronts down from Brick’s. Officer Mike Geraci was involved in an altercation with a man who double-parked his car in the street to unload product into his business. The situation escalated, and barbers and patrons of Brick’s went outside to watch what was happening. When an officer shoved the man’s wife, people began voicing their displeasure and started filming the incident. This reporter was present as the entire situation played out.
“Put that fucking camera down!” shouted an officer. “Get off the fucking sidewalk,” Geraci yelled at the guys from Brick’s.
“I know my rights. This is my business. I can be on the sidewalk in front of my business,” McCray told Geraci. “I don’t care what you know!” Geraci shouted back. Then McCray demanded Geraci’s badge number. Geraci gave it to him but said, “You sure you can spell? You don’t look like you can spell.”
Geraci returned after the local alt-weekly newspaper, Metroland, ran an article about the incident and apologized to McCray. But McCray doesn’t feel that the apology was exactly sincere. He thinks Geraci was motivated to apologize because he found out that Brick’s is an established and respected anchor in the community.
So how does McCray communicate to kids who come to his shop that it is important to work with the police when he himself has had bad experiences with them?
“What we tell them is that, ‘Listen, there’s good people and bad people, there’s good cops and bad cops. You want to connect with good people.’ We put ourselves out to be a conduit to the police department to bring about understanding. The police have a tough job. It’s not easy being a police officer. A lot of people make their jobs difficult, and then you’ve got some bad officers who make it difficult on the community.”
But McCray says he plans to keep working on things and reaching out to the police department. “It’s unfortunate that we are in a community that needs a whole lot of development. We hope someday soon some things can transpire so it becomes a whole lot more peaceful — not just for us as businessmen who see what’s going on and stress over it, but for the people who live here just as I do.”
My conversation winds down as more customers pour into the shop out of the biting cold wind. The football games are coming to their conclusion, but I’m not done here yet. I head to the ATM and return. McCray is waiting. “You ready?” he asks. I nod and sit down in the sturdy black barber’s chair. He asks me what I want. “Just make it less messy, please,” I say. He drapes the smock over me, wraps the paper around my neck, and turns on the clippers. Then he goes to work cleaning up my unkempt trim. He takes out an array of tools, gets the hair at the bottom of my neck. “So, what is your story, Dave?” he asks. “Where you grow up?” I relax and spill my guts: my parents’ divorce, my troubled childhood split between an exclusive private school and school for emotionally troubled youth. “I don’t deserve this luxury,” I think to myself. Only a few days ago I moved out of an apartment in the building adjacent to Brick’s, where I lived for five years, to new digs in Center Square, a much more upscale area. I feel guilty. But for the first time I feel safe in this neighborhood. I feel completely at home.
This article first ran in Metroland, Albany’s alt-weekly newspaper. Reprinted with permission.