The electric hair clippers extend like they are a scepter inviting the next customer to step into the throne. Delon Love grasps the crown of the teenager’s skull with a large, steady hand. He angles the head away from him as he shaves the hair into a neat frame around the forehead. The teenage boy closes his eyes as Love works. Here, the customer can relax and be taken care of like a prince.
Love sees a royal potential inside every young man that walks into his barber shop. He references Psalm 82 as evidence, “Doesn’t it say, ‘you are gods’?”
The barber believes that with careful attendance, the kingly power can be channeled into greatness. Untended, that potential becomes rogue aggression. As he trims away disheveled locks of hair, Love carefully shapes the attitudes of these young men to reveal their royal dignity inside.
Barbershops often serve as an informal clubhouse for men to let down their guard and talk about their problems. Some counselors have noticed this also. In Columbia, Maryland, counselor Debra Johnson used the backrooms of local barbershops to conduct blood pressure tests and light counseling. She told Counseling Today in 2010 that the men were more receptive to feedback in these situations.
The 35-year-old Love opened his shop, Nothing but Love Barbershop, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, five years ago. The shop quickly became a community center, and the businessman got to know the men of the neighborhood and their sons. The boys of Brooklyn reminded Love of himself when he was younger and growing up in Flatbush.
These teenagers, he saw, “have an infatuation with being bad” because media makes “being a thug more sexy than being intelligent.” Some come from bad circumstances that make them angry. Others have everything materially, and yet still have an aggressive impulse.
Where will such kids, who have no interest in church or school, be set straight? Love explains in a low, metered voice, uncluttered by ‘umm’s and ‘aah’s, that the barber chair is a natural place to speak into the ear of a young man. “Confession here is a little different than confession someone gives in church,” Love says, because a church requires much more ceremonial respect for hierarchy. At the barbershop, “I’m not authoritative and they’re not going to hold back. People let it out here, can be real with what they feel.”
When his guests are honest, then he can “be straight with how to deal with the problems.”
While each comes in with their own story, Love has one philosophy: “if they’re bad, I teach them to be a better bad.” If a kid enjoys beating up others, Love encourages him to channel that aggression into a productive job. “Go into the army, get medals, get pension, get a free education, maybe become president.” Or, law enforcement. “Go where aggression suits you and makes you better,” Love told one kid to encourage him to join the police force. If God or circumstances made you a certain way, work it to your advantage.
Growing up angry
Love is personally familiar with the anger that these kids harbor. He grew up in the New York City adoption system with his nine siblings from the same biological mother. He is the youngest, and from his older brothers, he learned to fight at a level far beyond his age. The kids his own age at school couldn’t fight him, and Love didn’t realize that he was too rough for them. He only saw them as weak, ready victims.
When Love was eight, his paternal aunt adopted Love and his older triplet brothers. He says that her adopting him was the best thing that happened to him. She was a “phenomenal woman,” Love enthused.
Alberta George was a woman who could take over a room just by stepping into it, “not in a loud boisterous way, but with a look, with a smile, with her grace and presence.” Love recalls her as a prolific reader and a self-taught entrepreneur.
At the time of his adoption, George owned her own beauty salon on Church and Flatbush Avenues in Brooklyn. Love spent many hours reading in the shop while he waited for his aunt to finish work. Later, at the age of 55, she went back to school to obtain her license as a funeral director and opened up her own funeral home in South Carolina.
She was also a spiritual woman, “not religious,” Love clarifies. She and God were “like buddies” and in the evenings George read to Love and his brothers from the Bible. On Sundays she brought them to the Holy House of Prayer for All People in Brownsville.
Love was a youngster with wild, hotheaded energy, and his aunt did her part to reign him in. She doggedly enrolled her children in all sorts of extracurricular activities to keep them occupied: karate, boxing, basketball, and summer camps.
When she caught Love doing something, she could lecture for hours until he begged her to “just give me a beating, please!”
George’s discipline was often laced with a sense of humor.
The barber remembers one time that he and his brothers had snuck out of the house to go to a party. They thought they had gotten away with it. However, while the prodigal teens were out having fun -- “I don’t know how she did it, but she took all our beds away,” Love cracks up remembering the incident. “Later we snuck back into the house, and we had no beds!”
That worthless feeling
In spite of the care that he received from George, the young Love felt homeless. His aunt was also occupied with raising three of her own kids. In contrast, Love wondered why his own parents had given him up. As a child, he felt “nobody loved me.” Somehow, a parent’s love and esteem is stickier than an aunt’s. It is a feeling that deep down, the bottom line says you are a zero.
The ill-emotions in his heart came out in acting angry and mean. With a posse of other teenage boys who fought and stole in school, Love found success and a sense of identity. In a pitiable misuse of learning his aunt’s leadership gifts, Love quickly become a ring leader. He was often in the hospital because he got hurt a lot in fights.
Love’s belligerence worsened in high school. Ruby, his other aunt who had adopted Love’s twin brothers, started talking with Aunt George about what to do with Love. Finally, they agreed that living at a distance from the city might be a good change for Love. At the end of his 11th grade year, he moved from New York City to Washington, DC, to live with his Aunt Ruby.
The plan faltered because leaving the city did not mean leaving his anger. The source of his anger just bubbled up conflict into his new territory. Love continued to fight, steal, and party. He moved back to New York when he was 26 years old.
A shock in “animal house”
After a night of partying, he crashed with Kenny, his cousin on his mother’s side. Kenny’s house was a habitat for bad behavior where “anything goes, partying and doing cocaine.” It was a souped-up, out of control animal house of debased partying. Love considered himself and Kenny as close friends. But that night laying on the floor, Love realized he was wasting his life.
“I hadn’t changed my socks in 21 days, I remember that,” he says. As he lay there, a stranger who had been hanging out the house stepped over Love to get across the room. The gesture brought a piercing revelation in the darkness.
“That got me so upset,” Love says, pausing in the middle of a haircut and raising his eyes to look directly into mine. “I thought, why am I, a strong black man, sleeping on somebody’s floor?” The indignity of the moment jolted him. Laying there on the floor, Love reminded himself of a childhood truth long forgotten. “I am God’s greatest creation, above all other animals.”
Love promised to himself that he would not be stepped over like a house cat again.
Separating out into a new life
He cut off all his friends, recognizing that “nobody gets in trouble because of their own ideas, but because of their friends.”
Then, he began to upgrade his intellect by reading. “Reading, reading, reading, like a maverick!” he said as a way of asserting his difference from his old crowd. He picked up books that would help him get ahead.
First, he turned to the Bible that his aunt had raised him on. Read with the eyes of someone wanting to succeed in life, the Bible has an amazing amount of practical advice. He read verses like, “Faith without works is dead.” He also read, “Faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains.” In these verses, he read a promise that his actions could affect the world around him. He also read the Bible as a prompt to take responsibility for his own actions and make something of his life.
However, he did not return to church because he had become skeptical about the ability of African American churches to help their communities. Black pastors, he claims, “con people, to do what they want.” He feels that it’s too easy for a pastor to embezzle his congregation. Love wanted a personal unmediated connection with his God and with his community, so he studied the Scriptures on his own.
After he had replenished himself from the Bible, he then turned to the self-help section of the bookstore. There, he found an inspirational well of life with instructions for self-motivation and respect. In his eagerness, “I’ve read almost every one out there.” He cut down watching TV, which was distracting him from his goals. As an avid sports fan, Love made only one exception, basketball games.
Thirdly, Love found a job as a barber. He recalled the warm, communal atmosphere of his aunt’s beauty salon. In Brooklyn neighborhoods, the barbershop is where people go where they need help or when they want to chat. Working mothers can leave their kids there for those in the shop to watch them for a little while. Older men teach younger ones valuable life lessons. For Love, working at a barbershop was an opportunity to plug into an edifying community.
Plus, he liked the challenge of making someone feel good about their looks. If you cut good hair, he noted, you’re something of a hero.
Though Love was self-taught when it came to cutting hair from his time growing up at his aunt’s shop and from trimming the hair of his teammates in his high school’s locker room, he got his license at the Atlas Barber school. He began cutting hair at Black Success Barber Shop on Pennsylvania Avenue. A couple of years later he moved to a Bedford-Stuyvesant shop.
The close-knit neighborhood instantly made him feel like he was home.
An entrepreneur is born, a ministry blossoms
His clientele base at the barbershop grew. On the days that he cut hair, the whole shop filled up with guests waiting for his services. His reputation was growing! So much so, Love reports, that the other barbers felt that he was taking over too many customers. To calm the waters, the shop owner decided Love should leave. The crisis turned out to be an opportunity
Love began calculating that wouldn’t it be great to have his own shop? He started to look around for an opportunity. Six months later, a man from the neighborhood approached him. The man was a superintendent of a building on Malcolm X Boulevard that had an empty barbershop on the first floor.
“I see you working hard all the time,” the man told Love. He wanted to know, would Love take over the barbershop? Surprised, Love was thankful that God was looking out for him.
“God must have put it on his heart to look for me,” Love believes. In 2010, he cut the ribbon for Nothing But Love Barbershop. On the awning he emblazoned “Give God All The Praise” as a thank you for the gift of the barbershop and for the second chance to be the man his aunt had raised him to be.
“Whatever you get, give it back to God,” he avows.
Two other barbers work for Love at the shop. There is usually a row of three to five teenagers sitting in hard black chairs by the door. If the wait is long, they reserve their spot--”yo, Love, I’m next, right?”--and step out to visit the bodega or quickly run home.
Each one steps up to the chair and in the monosyllabic exchanges of men, they tell Love what they want. His shop offers all sorts of cuts as well as designs.
Then, as the hair gets cut, the problems get solved.
“I have to listen first,” Love explains the process. “Some people don’t really want answers at first, they just want to get it out.” Then, when he sees they are either coming to the end of their point or are beginning to talk in circles, “that’s when I take over.” He gives them advice or a Bible passage to study.
His method has developed in a way similar to other faith-based barbers in the city. In East Harlem, Alejandro Lugo, now retired to Puerto Rico, was famously popular for pointing to one of sayings from the Biblical Book of Proverbs plastered all over his walls as a way of giving advice. Love is admired for a similar method of giving and reinforcing life-affirming direction.
“There’s one word to describe him: enlightening,” says teenager Greg, who started coming to the shop four months ago. “He gives you a new perspective on something you thought you got right.”
For example, Greg likes to help people but sometimes overextends his generosity. Love invokes a mantra about making sure Greg’s generosity is backed up with his own well-being. “Work on ‘I’,” the barber tells him.
“Some of the energy that you put out, put that love back on yourself,” he teaches.
Greg gives the advice an A+. “It’s been working for me so far,” he beams.
Watching Love, you see that he is quick and effective in cutting hair while giving advice. When the young men get out of the chair, they feel energized and as refined as they look on the outside. They appreciate having someone attend to them with such care. With the same hand, they pass Love a crumpled five dollar bill and a fist bump. Later, they might call him on the phone to revisit his advice to them. Or, they ask him to pray for them.
This really shocked Love at first.
“I never thought these tough guys would call me for that. They say it repeatedly, too,” and Love takes the requests seriously.
If one of his boys comes into the store to tell him, “Love, I need you,” it’s time to batten down the hatches. Love turns down the music, closes the store, and helps the young man clear his mind. Then, together they pray.
Love looks at his present success as rooted in the way his aunt raised him and the value that she placed on him.
“She really believed in the Love name,” Love said quietly. He has taken up that banner in order to share his respect and care for everyone who sits in his chair.
It’s more than just a name; it is way of life. He extends “nothing but love.”
Celebrate July 4th with a new hair styling by Nothing but Love Barbershop!
261 Malcolm X Blvd.