by Kristen Hamilton
From afar, Ed Bankston looks like he’s all business.
He moves with a slow and deliberate precision that suggests an air of confidence. Bankston’s hands are gloved like that of a surgeon in the operating room, which is fitting given his tag name on his business card, which declares him “The UnCommon Barbersurgeon.”
While he works, the black brim of Bankston’s fitted cap sits low over his eyes proudly displaying a straight razor emblem on the front. It echoes the tattoo on his arm highlighting his “tools of the trade” including clippers, scissors and a razor. His gruff, bushy beard nearly eclipses the rest of his face and is contrasted only by a noticeable softness around his eyes, which light up whenever he speaks, especially about being a barber.
Bankston has a lot of respect for his profession, and it manifests itself in an attention to detail instilled in him from a young age by his military father.
“I got a little OCD from the military,” Bankston explained. “My dad used to, if we were told to clean our room, he had the white gloves and he’d rub it across to see if there was any dust there.”
But this “OCD” works to his advantage in the barbershop where he said people appreciate his attention to detail and it’s one of the main reasons customers choose the barbershop over a chain shop or salon.
Bankston said what they do, especially the razoring, is not easily replicated in chain shops.
“This here,” he said motioning to a clean, crisp hairline he just finished edging with his clippers, “this right here is something that Great Clips can’t do. They don’t really have that art.”
Bankston took a step back to admire his own work, like an artist looking for a new perspective on his canvas, and after checking both sides he turned the clippers back on to make an adjustment.
He cuts smoothly and deliberately with quick flicks of the wrist and frequently steps back to make sure he’s pleased with the results. Because of this, a cut takes at least half an hour.
“This is a 30 minute service at least if you want it done right,” Bankston said. “A kid maybe is 15 minutes, but this is not a quick place to get a sandwich and go kind of thing.”
In other industries where speed is more important than presentation, Bankston’s methodical desire to get things “just right” was a hindrance.
“I worked at a lot of fast food places and that skill or quality always got me in trouble,” Bankston said. “I was never moving fast enough.”
At the barbershop, however, most of Bankston’s customers appreciate the time he puts in. And to those who get a little impatient he says, “This ain’t McDonalds like that.”
Changes and New Experiences
While the attention to detail he learned growing up in the military supplied Bankston with the mindset necessary to be a successful barber, the military also gave him his first taste of cutting hair. When his father was stationed in Germany during the late ’80s and early ’90s, the options for a stylish haircut on base were limited.
Bankston said he realized he would either have to sacrifice his personal style or learn to cut his own hair.
At that time, Bankston, as well as the other kids on base, wanted to wear flat-tops, or hi-top fades like the hip hop group Kid n’ Play, but military barbers weren’t willing or able to indulge them.
“The only problem was,” Bankston said, “military barbers couldn’t cut that style of haircuts.”
Bankston took to practicing these “cooler” cuts on his younger brother and eventually gained enough skill to cut his own hair as well as several other friends on base who preferred his cuts to the a classic military cut like the even-steven or buzz cut.
“I have a little brother four years younger than me, so I used to practice messing his hair up, putting lines in his hair and stuff until I got good,” Bankston said. “Then, when I got a little better I cut different people on the army base.”
However, Bankston said his love of cutting hair diminished as time went on. When his father’s assignment was relocated to Euclid, Ohio, Bankston said he reinvented himself.
“At a certain point I would hate for people to ask me to cut their hair,” he said. “I only really wanted to cut my own. But, by me moving a lot, being in the military, I got to change my identity. So, when I moved from Germany to Euclid, Ohio, I wasn’t the barber anymore. It was somebody else that was cutting hair.”
Bankston said his new identity wasn’t all positive, and as a teenager he “got into some trouble” and ended up with a record.
Despite this, Bankston turned himself around and went to Kent State where he became a self-professed history buff. His trouble as a teenager inspired Bankston to want to work with at-risk youth and ex-offenders.
“What I wanted to do in life was work with at-risk youth and help them get back on track if they went off track,” Bankston said. “Then I got into advocating for ex-offenders, because I was one, and it can be hard for some of us and some of us didn’t really deserve some of that treatment.”
Certain his dream job awaited him, Bankston studied public policy and hoped he could help change public opinion about those who had been previously incarcerated, but after graduation, he said he wasn’t able to secure a job in the field and instead worked a few odd jobs.
Still the idea of being a barber wasn’t an immediately obvious decision. Especially since he started losing his hair at 19 and no longer had to do much to cut his own hair.
“As I got older I lost mine, as you can see,” Bankston said lifting his fitted cap and revealing a shiny bald head that contrasts his full beard. “So there wasn’t need for me to do anything but a bald.”
Having lost his hair so early, Bankston understands how important it is for most men and what he can’t appreciate on his head he makes up for with his beard.
“I know how hair is for guys, its strength in a man,” he said. “This hair right here, this is my pride. I’m No-Shave November all year.”
Attending Barber School
After years away from the trade and fewer lucrative job options than he hoped, Bankston realized that he could put his old barbering skills and attention to detail to use.
“Finding a meaningful, paying job was becoming hard,” he said. “They’ve got a lot of different programs now for allowing ex-criminals to work, but back then it wasn’t that progressive or liberal. I did some odd jobs here and there and I finally just got to the conclusion that maybe I should try my luck at becoming a barber.”
Bankston saved the money necessary, approximately $10,000 for most barber schools, to enroll at Lake Erie Barber College in 2010 determined to brush up on his skills.
Here he had professors who further instilled in him a sense of pride and respect for the profession.
“When I first started off in my school I had one teacher that it was mandatory on all Saturdays to dress up with a shirt and tie,” Bankston said. “He wanted us to respect our craft.”
In the state of Ohio, barbers are required to have a license for which they must pass a state exam demonstrating their skills.
Although Lake Erie Barber College has since shut its doors, David Gail,The Director of Education at Ohio State Barber College said in an email Ohio requires 1800 hours of training by a licensed school to obtain a barber license.
“In barber school they teach us to do a lot that people don’t know,” Bankston said. “For instance, we’re taught how to hair color. We’re taught how to wrap a roller set. We’re also taught manicure. We can arch eyebrows. But at a barbershop in this kind of a setting most guys come in here and want a quick fix, so we don’t ever really get to use a lot of that stuff, but we are trained to do some of those things.”
One of the most useful skills Bankston learned in school was how to use a straight razor.
“I knew how to cut hair; I could fade, though my fade could use some improvement,” Bankston admitted with a knowing smile, “but I knew that I didn’t know to use a razor. So, when I went to barber school I learned you go with the flow of the hair strand. If the hair is growing in a downward motion then you shave in a downward motion.”
Barber school also illuminated Bankston on the different types of hair and the different methods of cutting it. Bankston proudly works in an “international shop” where he said “we can cut anybody’s hair.”
As if on cue, a Kent State student from Cambodia wanders into the shop and sits in Bankston’s seat. He points out a picture posted on the wall of the haircut he wants because he is uncomfortable speaking in English. Bankston nods and smiles at him reassuringly.
“Straight hair,” he said, “it’s different. You guys have, especially like blonder hair, you guys have, I think 140 strands of hair per square inch, whereas we (African Americans) have less. We’re working with like 70 strands of hair per square inch on the scalp. And then your hair’s straight, our hair is a coil because of the climate where we’re from. God designed us this way because in the hot you want the hair to draw up off the neck to cool you off. In the colder climates you want the hair to cover the neck to warm you up.”
Returning to Kent
In 2012, Bankston finished barber school and traveled to the Ohio State Barber Board in Columbus where he took the state exam and passed with a 92, making it legal for him to cut hair.
After completing his license, Bankston began working in a shop in Richmond Heights but was eager to return to Kent when he reunited with his old college girlfriend who still lived in the area. The two are now married with three daughters and son.
Kent feels like home to Bankston, who said he is happy to be back.
“When I first came to Kent, Bankston said, “what stood out to me the most was it reminded me of an army base. I’m an army brat. The campus kind of resembled an army base. The town was easy to navigate. It’s a small town and that’s what I was used to.”
Returning as an adult, Bankston said he is proud to live in a family-oriented community, and work in a shop like Leander’s, which is located on East Main St. in downtown Kent.
“We’re family oriented,” he said. “You can leave [the kids] for a cut and go shopping. Leander’s Barber Shop caters to everyone. When you’re here, you notice there’s a difference here.”
Bankston’s precise, yet relaxed demeanor fits in at Leander’s, which seems to echo his vibe of respect of self and the profession. The two other barbers in the shop, Isaiah Bush and Leander Walker, are both family men who nod along with Bankston’s description of the shop.
“This town is small so our status in the community is big,” Bankston said. “The owner (Leander) told me in the very beginning you really have to watch yourself and how you represent yourself because this town is small and everybody knows you. This isn’t a bad occupation to have and so people look up to you.”
With that in mind, Bankston and the other barbers at Leander’s strive to be a good example for the young men in the community. While Bankston may not have gotten the chance to work with at-risk youth and ex-offenders in the way he once imagined, he recognized that the barbershop still allows him the opportunity to help people.
“My chair now can be used as the same type of platform,” he said.
For Bankston, a lot of being a good barber is being able to build a solid rapport with his customers.
“Because I’m paying so close attention to his head, I can’t help but remember his face, his nose, his eyes,” Bankston said as he playfully swivels the chair around and looks deeply into the eyes of the customer he’s currently working on. “So, that’s what helps you get personal with people. But then after, that if you have a good enough conversation you’re gonna automatically remember them.”
And with clients who come in as frequently as once or twice a week, he is able to get to know his customers well and extol a lot of advice. When a young man steps into his seat, Bankston doesn’t just freshen up his look, he also “drops some knowledge on him.”
“If I get anybody in my chair now, I can be guiding them in a certain direction,” he said. “When you see them often you get to instill more guidance, reiterate certain things. They’ll say, ‘what was that you were telling me, where I can get that help?’”
Bankston hopes they need look no further than his chair.
“I’m right where I want to be still, I just went a different route, but it’s still working out,” Bankston said.