The roughly 45 minutes customers spend in Isaac Atencio’s barber chair are never totally about hair.
At The Salt Lake Barber Co., chairs face the waiting area, not the mirror on the wall — an effort to spark conversation among visitors. Vintage arcade machines and books about the delightful pockets of Salt Lake City adorn the new west-side shop.
Everything is carefully curated with one goal: bringing people together.
Atencio opened his new west-side barbershop at 285 N. 900 West in April, expanding from his first location near the intersection of 800 South and Main Street.
“I see myself as a local stakeholder in the community,” Atencio said. “We’re overdue for change, and we’re overdue for representation.”
Atencio’s new location breaks a 10-year streak of vacancy in the Fairpark commercial building it now calls home.
The top executive behind the nonprofit that owns the building, however, wasn’t willing to let just any business occupy the space.
“We had a lot of offers to lease the space out but many of those potential businesses were either payday [loan] or pawn shops,” NeighborWorks Salt Lake CEO Maria Garciaz said, “and we already feel that those businesses are represented in the community.”
NeighborWorks, an organization dedicated to spurring economic development and creating housing opportunities in neighborhoods, spent more than $500,000 to buy and rebuild the blighted building.
Garciaz, however, said she’d rather lose money by leaving the space vacant than lease it to a business that wouldn’t serve the community.
More than a barbershop
Atencio drove past the space near 900 West and 300 North for years on his commute to his Rose Park home. He and his neighbors remained puzzled about why the “for lease” sign never came down.
For him, it was the right spot for the many business ventures in his mind.
“I kind of just got tired of wondering and called the number on the phone and started asking questions,” he said. “And before I knew it, we were kind of engaged in talks about it.”
The new shop opened six years after Atencio and his business partner, Eric Stone, founded The Salt Lake Barber Co. south of downtown. The original location gained popularity among customers who like to chat with their barbers — a selling point for NeighborWorks Salt Lake.
“It’s a much-needed service for community,” Garciaz said. “And they have these great ideas to become a place-making center for community.”
A new coffee shop in Fairpark
One of those ideas has nothing to do with haircuts.
The west-side shop aims to replicate the original location’s ambiance, but it’s going a step further by adding Culture, a coffee shop with outdoor seating and a menu that reflects the west side’s diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
The coffee shop is expected to open next month just a doorstep away from the barbershop.
In the meantime, three barbers, including Atencio, are already building a new community within the barbershop’s new location.
The shop’s website warns that it isn’t a place for “trendy youngsters” to be seen, or for “the good ol’ boys” to congregate.
The Salt Lake Barber Co. promises to be a safe space to all.
As a Black- and Latino-owned business, creating that inclusive environment has been essential, Atencio said.
If you visit one of The Salt Lake Barber Co. locations, chances are you’ll find someone who can work with your hair texture and style.
The shops are welcoming to locals and visitors alike, with barbers ready to shoot the breeze on what’s happening across the city or offer tips to those who are looking to check out a new restaurant or attraction.
“We really try to be that middle piece of the community,” Atencio said, “where people are trying to learn about what’s going on around them and we can kind of help fill those gaps.
‘If you know, you know’
Some passersby stop in just to welcome the new shop to the neighborhood, and some existing clients followed Atencio west.
One of them is Aabir Malik, who has visited Atencio’s chair since 2018. Being a customer at this shop, he said, feels like a full-circle moment in his life.
Malik recalls growing up in Austin, Texas, and taking his first trips to a barbershop with his father. He described the visits as a coming-of-age experience that introduced him to respectful discussion of different opinions.
As an adult, he sees his time in the barber chair as therapeutic.
“I think Isaac and Eric have done a really, really great job of creating a place where people feel welcome and people feel open to discussing things that maybe we don’t all want to discuss with people that we don’t really know,” he said. “But they’ve created a forum in their barbershops where open conversation and open dialogue is not only fostered, but it’s respected and defended.”
As an added bonus, he said, being a regular visitor of the barbershop has given him some insight into the character of strangers who may pop in to freshen up their look — and dish an opinion or two.
“It’s kind of like being part of a club, that, if you know, you know,” he said. “I don’t know you as a person, but if you’re down with that type of atmosphere and you enjoy the conversation that takes place, chances are likely I’m going to get along with you.”
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.