— Janet Alexander Davis
The west side of Evanston until the 1980s was predominately African American. The neighborhood was full of hardworking people who owned their homes while raising their children to be the next generation. As time passed, for various reasons, the racial composition of the area began to change and some began to form a negative impression of the overall area. With increased mobility and housing choices that began to take off in the early 1970s, Black people began to move to other northern suburbs. As a result, the rich neighborhood history produced by families like Johnson, Robinson, Giles, Flemings, Hill, Morrison, and many more was lost. This prompted Shorefront Journal to begin looking at second-generation families still working or living in the northern suburban communities.
On a sunny day in May, Ebony Barbershop owner GiGi Giles sat down to talk about her father, the late Marshall Giles, and the second-generation business she now represents on Dodge Avenue.
So much about the image this area has acquired over the decades is perception. Yet, buried deep is the realization of a rich history. Church Street Barbershop and Ebony Barbershop have conducted business in this area for more than fifty years. GiGi’s father, Marshall, started his career in Sam Johnson’s barbershop located on Church Street. With his new experience, he opened his own two-chair shop in 1962 at 1708 Dodge Avenue. The late David Taylor first worked with Marshall in that shop just off of the alley. Marshall then moved to the current shop at 1702 Dodge, where Bucky Taylor joined him in his four-chair shop.
About fifteen years later, Marshall knocked out a wall and added a fifth chair to meet the increased need for space and efficient handling of customers. GiGi stressed how much her father loved his shop. Cut from the same mold as her father, she shares the influence her father has had on her. “I’ve taken up a lot of his ways, such as making sure there are ample hangers for customers, windows washed, and newspapers to read . . . things that make customers comfortable,” she says. “My dad took good care of the shop and his customers.”
Her father was well read, keeping up with daily news from the Wall Street Journal to Ebony Magazine. You had to have the “right music on depending on who was in the shop.” She goes on to remember when the “no smoking” ordinance was passed and she put up the signs to that effect. They had words about no smoking in the shop since they both smoked, but the ordinance dictated the need to change the shop’s environment. One day, she unexpectedly walked into the shop and found her father smoking in the back. Guess that was a discussion to witness! Because of the new “no smoking” rule, they lost customers. However, she remembers a mother calling one day to inquire about where they stood on smoking. When she learned that it was prohibited she stated, “Good, I’ll come back now. I stopped coming because I couldn’t stand the effect of the smoke.”
GiGi continued to reminisce: “The Black barbershop has always been a place of a community of men. Because my sons’ father couldn’t always take our two sons, I had to take them to a shop for haircuts. I felt uncomfortable at times, but I loved to hear Black men discussing news, politics, history, sports, and more, including gossip, I’m sure. I was always respected and no cursing or disrespectful conduct was allowed while I was there.” GiGi stressed to those she works with that she is a lady barber in the shop, but doesn’t want the men to lose that feel of the shop as if it were all men.
I asked GiGi how did her dad keep the business going for so long. “You keep getting up and keep coming back, and when you leave . . . you leave it. You have to love it and my dad and I have that love of it in common. You remember each person’s name that comes in.” At times her dad renamed people and they would answer to it! Those customers could be the kid down the block, N.U. players and coaches, or, in the early days, Bulls players, the Bears, Neil Armstrong, TV anchor Robert Jordan, and weather man Steve Baskerville (GiGi gets personal weather reports), as well as second-generation young men, whose fathers’ hair had been cut in that same shop. In essence, everyone was treated with equal attention.
I asked some prepared questions to determine what it takes to become a successful business owner:
What values were passed down to you?
“What you put in it is what you get out. Your word was your bond, you do your best.”
Did you witness failures in the family business that had to be overcome, and how?
“Not to be afraid of change.” GiGi remembered Bailey’s Bicycle Shop. When Bailey was ready to sell, he offered the building to GiGi’s father and Casey Robinson, another businessman who rented from Bailey. The men chose not to buy their business space. “Look where we could have been now.” GiGi reflects on the thinking process back then, when race played a huge factor. Doing business with Whites then, there was this constant feeling of distrust, especially with what we were going through then. Fighting racism had its disastrous effects on the mind. They were “satisfied where they were then and fearful of change.”
How did you know you would be a successful business?
“If Daddy could do it, why not me?” GiGi has a photograph of her dad in the shop where she uses it as motivation anytime it’s needed. When she attended barber school, her dad would tell her, “Hair is hair—you learn to do all hair types including the unfamiliar White hair—cut, cut, and cut hair because the more you do the better you become. You can’t make it personal. Make everyone comfortable because you don’t know what they may be going through.”
How do you define success?
“Every week, every month, someone comes in the shop and says ‘you still here?’ That feeling you get inside when you know ‘yes, I am still doing it.’ ”
What would you say to others facing adversity?
“Don’t quit, don’t give up. The hardest thing is to quit because when you stick with it . . . you feel better.”
What would you tell your 15-year-old self about life/love/success that you wish you’d known then?
“It’s all the same, but you have to love yourself.”
What’s one great thing about being a business owner in Evanston?
“I love Evanston. I am homegrown. This is my home base. I know many people say things about Evanston, but I know I am a Evanstonian, and I stand on that!”
Spending time with this second-generation business owner, you are left with the feeling that Ebony Barbershop will be around for another fifty years. Full of energy, and with an eye on the future, GiGi is respectful of the history forged by her father, Marshall Giles, and of the others that have played a part in her life.
GiGi wants you to: “Come get a haircut and witness the growth about to take place on Dodge Avenue near Church, so Daddy can be proud. I miss him so much.”
Source: Interviews with GiGi Giles by Janet Alexander Davis in July 2013 and on April 28, 2014.