Situated on the northwest corner of 33rd and Spring Garden Streets in Philadelphia is Thee Shop Plaza barbershop. A place Nafis Williams, an around-the-way barber, calls home.
"It's everything you'd expect, plus more. It can go from zero to 100 in five seconds," Williams notes in describing the servicing hangout spot. He began a momentous course here circa 2007 after making a bittersweet move that would eventually boost his career.
Williams had been cutting hair for almost eight years before transferring to Thee Shop Plaza. Due to some business stipulation, he wasn't able to tell customers where he was going and had to start from scratch, but luckily for him, the move opened up a door to platform work for Andis and word of mouth led old customers to his new location.
Williams took advantage of emerging social media outlets, flyers and face-to-face networking to rebuild and fortify his personal brand. He started cutting hair for different politicians who were hosting or making appearances at big events, and even landed a few appointments with professional athletes.
"They would always recommend me. Once I got one, it just bloomed into three, four, five, six," he says. "Like with the Drexel [University] basketball team—I've been cutting them for about 14 years. Every time a new coach or player comes, they come to me."
Some of his run-ins with big shots are actually documented on the Shop's "wall of fame" full of celebrity signatures. Right next to another wall submerged in framed collages of newspaper articles and real-time photos of groundbreaking moments in American history. Right in front of a row of urban and sports magazines. And right behind a television normally found on news or sports channels.
Though his clientele ranges from celebrities and local heavy hitters including the Philadelphia Phillies' Ryan Howard and Domonic Brown, Philadelphia Councilman Kenyatta Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles' Cllifton Geathers, radio personality Q Deezy and more, Williams says all of his customers are stars and he treats them all as such. He prides himself on good customer service and a passion for the craft, which began in his early high school years but heightened in 1999 when he decided to skip college and the military and go to Gordon Phillips hair school instead.
"Me and my homies were dying each other's hair. I used to have purple hair, blonde hair. That turned into, 'Let me start cutting hair,'" Williams says. "My older brother was a successful barber in Philadelphia and I wanted to follow in the footsteps of him. I liked what he did, making people look good, making money and having fun doing it."
Williams says the hardest part of his job is when he doesn't feel like doing it.
"When I don't feel like socializing and something's on my mind," he admits. "A lot of barbers can cut. What differentiates you from everybody else is customer service…I have to kick it into gear that I'm here for a service. I can't bring those thoughts into a barber shop because regardless of whether or not I feel like cutting hair or feel like talking, that's what people are coming to see me for."
Even so, that commitment might contribute to what Williams deems the best part of his 9-10 hour workdays, too. "When people walk out of here, they walk out confident. Strutting their stuff," he says. His role mirrors that of a confidant and he's well aware of his effect on people's daily routine. But his influence stretches far beyond the barber chair.
In a community-based profession like his, where trust, safe spaces and friendships are built, Williams believes in giving back.
"I bring little kids in here to work, sweep up, so they can stay out of trouble," he says. "Most of the kids in our community don't have fathers so being around some positive men and at the same time learning a craft is a plus."
Connect with Nafis on Instagram @nafisthebarber
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