FLINT, Michigan—Nick Gallardo focused intensely as he slowly dragged his straight razor over the cheek of a fellow student.
Gallardo, 26, of Bay City, is in Flint for the same reason as thousands of others before who came before him. He came to the Flint Institute of Barbering just over a year ago to learn and to build his career. He now has raked up more than 1,300 hours of experience and is following in the footsteps of his uncle, a barber in Saginaw, and cutting a perfect line into Manuel Rodarte’s beard.
“I was doing asbestos abatement for five years,” Gallardo says. “I never realized how much money you can make (barbering). I jumped at it. I wake up every morning doing what I love.”
The Flint Institute of Barbering dates back more than 90 years and is operated by a third generation of the Ayre family, with Martha Ayre Poulos at the helm. And, it draws students from all over Michigan and even beyond.
“I like being a barber because of the moral character,” says Gallardo. “You’re a good member of the society. They trust me because they trust me with their hair.”
Rodarte, 35, of Saginaw enrolled in September and also is drawn to the craft because of the ability a barber has to impact how people feel about themselves and the world around them.
“You can change people's lives, man,” Rodarte says. “It’s the beauty of cutting hair.”
Founded in 1925 by John Leo Ayre and John Leo Ayre Jr., the school has been in continuous operation (except a few years during World War II). Initially located in downtown Flint between the Masonic Temple and St. Paul’s Church, the school moved to its current Flushing Road location in 1970.
Martha Ayre Poulos, 57, is the granddaughter of John Leo Ayre and daughter of John Leo Ayre Jr. She started at the institute in the mid-80s, helping in the office. As her father moved closer and closer to retirement, she decided to stay.
“I fell in love with the students, so I stayed, and then dad retired in the late 1980s,” she smiles.
Classes run year-round with new students joining every two months. Enrollment typically is about 50 students at any given time. As new students enroll, the advanced students graduate (after completing the required 2,000 hours of instruction and experience).
Over the years, the student demographic has changed. In the 1980s, nearly all the students were women. At one point, there was only one man enrolled. These days, it’s rare for a woman to apply.
Students typically are in their late 20s or early 30s—but the students have ranged in age from 16 to 66 years old. Many of their students have been to traditional college, and still decide to come learn a trade, Poulos said.
About one-third of the current students are from Flint. Many others come from Saginaw, Bay City or metro Detroit, but some have come from as far away as Florida and Alaska. The employment rate for graduates is about 73 percent: “Most of our students go to traditional barber shops,” says Poulos.
For 40 years, Bob Morey has served as a guiding hand for students here. The director of education, Morey is one of four instructors that start each day with an hour and 15 minutes of student instruction. Then, the students head out to the floor to try their own hand at the cuts.
“I show them a bunch of haircuts before they hit the floor,” says Morey. “First they see it, then they practice it.”
One of the benefits of attending the Flint Institute of Barbering is that the students are exposed to all different types of hair and hair textures.
“The barbering philosophy is you learn by doing,” Poulos says.
John Forrester, 66, of Flushing, has been coming to the Flint Institute of Barbering for his haircuts for 10 years. He patiently sits while his barber, Chris Hampton, 29, of Flint, gets some advice from an instructor. Forrester says he keeps coming back because he likes his cuts and loves the great price. Plus, he says, it “gives guys the experience and that’s the big thing. On the job experience.”
“The need for barbers, there’s a really big need. There’s a shortage in outlying areas,” says Poulos. “There aren’t that many schools.”
The Flint Institute of Barbering is open to the public for haircuts Tuesday through Friday, 10:15 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Basic cuts are $2.50 for a junior barber and $5 for an advanced barber.
For more information, visit flintinstituteofbarberinginc.com