The se­cret of their suc­cess? Find­ing a unique niche, an­tique bar­ber chairs

South Florida Times - - BUSINESS - By Ur­ban News Ser­vice FAD­ING THRONES: Jon McDaniels re­stores an­tique bar­ber chairs to their orig­i­nal grandeur.

CUR­TIS BUNN

Not many were on board when Jon McDaniel de­cided to honor his late fa­ther-in-law by…. hav­ing his 1950s bar­ber chair re­stored. Who does that? was the com­mon re­frain.

And, then, they saw the fin­ished prod­uct.

“Amaz­ing,” Jon McDaniel, said with a hint of sat­is­fac­tion. His friends quickly agreed.

McDaniel ad­mired his wife’s fa­ther, Dan Stringer—a World War II navy vet­eran, who en­listed the day af­ter the Pearl Har­bor at­tacks. A pa­triot at heart, he joined when the navy had few AfricanAmer­i­cans, on shore or at sea. He just knew he would be needed. Stringer learned to be a bar­ber while serv­ing over­seas. When he re­turned to his na­tive Chero­kee County, some 40 miles north of At­lanta, he bought a Kohler Pres­i­den­tial bar­ber chair and started cut­ting hair in his base­ment. (His day job? County Sher­iff.)

With a life story like that, McDaniel knew his fa­therin-law, who passed away 29 years ago, needed a unique me­mo­rial. He weighed many dif­fer­ent ideas. Even­tu­ally, he thought of dis­carded, dusty hunk of metal in the base­ment—Stringer’s old bar­ber chair.

To McDaniel’s sur­prise, there is a mini-in­dus­try de­voted to restor­ing bar­ber chairs. He found Cus­tom Bar­ber Chairs, a three-man com­pany that spe­cial­ized in res­ur­rect­ing bar­ber chairs that are older than Sid­ney Poitier.

A few weeks later af­ter CBC picked up his rust­ing relic, McDaniel vis­ited their At­lanta-area shop. “The chair was laid out in a mil­lion pieces,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh, my god.’”

By the time Sid Tu­tani, one of CBC’s own­ers, had worked his magic, McDaniel ut­tered the same ex­pres­sion, only in a dif­fer­ent con­text.

The re­stored throne boasted McDaniel’s beloved Ge­or­gia Tech logo in the cen­ter of the back, chrome and porce­lain de­tails, and hy­draulics that worked like new. “It was the best thing I could have done,” McDaniel said. “He [his fa­ther in law] meant so much to me and did so much for the coun­try. His chair is prob­a­bly bet­ter now than it ever was. When peo­ple come to my ‘man cave’ down­stairs, it is a show­stop­per.”

McDaniel paid $5,200 to re­store his fa­ther-in-law’s legacy. “Worth ev­ery penny,” he said.

“When (Stringer’s son), who didn’t want the chair, saw it, he al­most had a fit. It’s beau­ti­ful.”

McDaniel’s is just one of many, as Cus­tom Bar­ber Chairs has flour­ished in its unique busi­ness niche.

The busi­ness be­gan eight years ago, when Kwame In­nis no­ticed a photo of an an­tique chair in an ob­scure mag­a­zine. Im­pul­sively, he bought a 1930s model for his home, but found it dif­fi­cult to find some­one to re­fur­bish it.

Ex­as­per­ated, he called friends Tu­tani in At­lanta and Ro­han Bal­go­bin in Houston, fel­low pho­tog­ra­phers and web­site de­sign­ers. He hoped they would see his vi­sion and be will­ing to learn how to teach them­selves—through trial and er­ror—to re­store vin­tage bar­ber chairs. “Friends I could re­ally trust be­cause I knew this could take off ,” In­nis said.

Tu­tani and Bal­go­bin quickly came on­board.

“I was open to the idea be­cause at the time, I had moved from New York to Texas and things had slowed down,” Bal­go­bin said. “And I was al­ways good with my hands, fix­ing things and work­ing with my Dad at his me­chan­ics shop. And I liked the idea of us black men do­ing some­thing with an­tiques. We carved a space.”

Tu­tani, how­ever, did not see it that way. Not at first. “I was like, “What? Re­store bar­ber chairs? What? But pretty quickly, I got it. It was a unique niche.”

Their story is more fas­ci­nat­ing be­cause the men had no train­ing and could not find classes on how to ren­o­vate the chairs. So, they taught them­selves, learn­ing as they went, and a cou­ple of YouTube videos that gave point­ers on a few el­e­ments of the unique chairs.

Over time, they per­fected the craft.

“There were no for­mal classes any­where,” Bal­go­bin, 46, said. “The com­pa­nies that made the chairs had all closed. We found some schemat­ics on Google Patent, but noth­ing on how to fix them. We just learned over time.”

In­nis, 51, said: “It took us about eight months to re­store that first chair. It was trial and er­ror. I prob­a­bly spent $7,000 on that chair. Knowing what I know now, it prob­a­bly should have cost about $2,000. But I love the chair.”

In­nis ex­plained his mo­ti­va­tion. “It took me back to my child­hood when my grand­fa­ther would take me to the bar­ber­shop.”

Now, they have cus­tomers from across the globe. They have re­stored and shipped chairs to Africa, Aus­tralia, Canada, Europe and South Amer­ica as well as many of these United States.

CBC’s re­stored chairs have been fea­tured in HBO’s Board­walk Em­pire, the film Bar­ber­shop III, and count­less photo ses­sions.

They said, iron­i­cally, most of their clients are col­lec­tors who de­sire to have an an­tique chair in their home or “man cave” in­stead of the tra­di­tional re­cliner.

It can take up to six months to com­plete a thor­ough job and cost up to $12,000 to re­store a chair, In­nis said, mak­ing it a lux­ury item, not a need.

“We take the chair apart, fix the up­hol­stery, sand blast the porce­lain, pol­ish the metal and re­build the hy­draulics,” he ex­plained. “It’s al­most like (the TV show) Pimp My Ride. The work we do de­pends on what the cus­tomer wants.”

They have pro­duced chairs with the Sis­tine Chapel em­bla­zoned on it, com­pany lo­gos, “just about any­thing you could want,” Tu­tani said. “With the right bud­get, we can do any­thing imag­in­able.”

Seventy per­cent of their clients, In­nis said, are in­di­vid­u­als, in­clud­ing ath­letes and artists, who sim­ply want a chair be­cause it is unique. A con­ver­sa­tion piece. A nos­tal­gic me­mento. A com­fort­able place to the game. It was star­tling at first to lear n there was a de­mand for an­tique bar­ber chairs for home use. But then In­nis re­mem­bered that was how he ul­ti­mately was at­tracted to the busi­ness.

“The peo­ple who can af­ford it and who ap­pre­ci­ate the work put into it get them,” In­nis said. “It’s not a bar­gain item. It’s a lux­ury item, a want, not a need. So, we find our­selves do­ing less work for bar­ber-shop own­ers and more for col­lec­tors.”

The team find chairs to re­store at es­tate sales, barns, old lots, peo­ple’s at­tics while clients find them through In­ter­net searches.

“There are not many out there do­ing what we do,” In­nis said. “But there are a lot of men with dis­pos­able in­come who ap­pre­ci­ate the crafts­man­ship and want our chairs.”

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF UR­BAN NEWS SER­VICE

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