'I Didn't Deserve It': Pandemic Shut Down His Barbershop, Then A Fire Destroyed It

Jun 4, 2020
Originally published on June 4, 2020 8:45 am

Trevon Ellis spent years building up his north Minneapolis barbershop, the Fade Factory, luring customers with smart haircuts, snacks and friendly conversation.

It took just one terrible night to destroy it all.

"Inside is totally burned down," Ellis says. "Everything was burned to a crisp."

The recent wave of protests against police brutality has left a trail of chaos and destruction in many city neighborhoods, with countless businesses looted and damaged.

Among them are some African American businesses, which were already hard hit by the coronavirus lockdowns and are decidedly more vulnerable to the economic downturn.

The number of black-owned businesses has grown sharply over the years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, but most are tiny operations financed not through bank credit but personal funds and loans from friends and family.

Ellis was trained as a barber more than a decade ago. "If you're motivated and self-driven, which is what it takes to be a barber, the financial part of it is limitless," he says.
Laylah Amatullah Barrayn for NPR

They "are not mom and pops. They're mom or pops," says Ron Busby, president and CEO of U.S. Black Chambers Inc.

Ellis, 42, was trained as a barber more than a decade ago and began renting space in a barber shop in a rough part of Minneapolis. He printed out business cards with his name on them and passed them out everywhere he went.

"If you're motivated and self-driven, which is what it takes to be a barber, the financial part of it is limitless," Ellis says.

A self-described "people person," Ellis loves chatting with customers, hearing their confidences and, in the process, leaving them looking better than when they came in.

"If they can look at theirself in the mirror or get compliments from people that see them with a nice haircut, it actually makes people more positive, more lighthearted," Ellis says.

When the lockdowns began in March, Ellis was forced to shut his shop down. While some of his regular customers begged him to cut their hair on the sly, he says he worried about contagion.

The weeks since then have been rough financially and boring as well.

"I slept a lot, but you only can sleep so much. You only can surf the Internet so much. There's only so much social media you want to feed in your brain because you can't believe everything you see or hear on there," Ellis says.

Ellis plans on rebuilding a shop in the same neighborhood, using funds raised by a GoFundMe campaign set up by a stranger. He says he knows why people protested and doesn't blame anyone in particular. What he doesn't understand is why his shop was targeted.
Laylah Amatullah Barrayn for NPR

He had been hoping the restrictions would be lifted soon and he could reopen the Fade Factory. Then, sometime late Saturday, someone broke into the shop, poured some kind of dark liquid on the floor and lit the place on fire.

Firefighters in Minneapolis were so overwhelmed by emergency calls that it took them hours to show up, and by then the Fade Factory was no more.

After Ellis' plight made the local news, a stranger set up a GoFundMe page, which had raised more than $53,000 as of Wednesday afternoon. Ellis says he will use the money to rebuild his shop in the same neighborhood.

He says he knows why people protested and doesn't blame anyone in particular. What he doesn't understand is why his shop was targeted.

"Whoever torched that barbershop, I didn't deserve it, the community didn't deserve it and definitely that building owner didn't deserve it," Ellis says.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The protests against the killing of a black man in police custody have included some destruction. And some of the businesses damaged and burned belong to African Americans. NPR's Jim Zarroli spoke with a barber in north Minneapolis whose shop was burned to the ground.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: There's nothing left of Trevon Ellis' barbershop, the Fade Factory, except a smoking hole filled with rubble.

TREVON ELLIS: Inside is totally burned down. Like, there was vending machines in there, display cases for snacks and clothes. There was even a snowblower in there, like, literally, a brand-new snowblower that we used to plow the sidewalks and parking lot. Nothing's recognizable. Everything was burned to a crisp.

ZARROLI: On Saturday night, while protests gripped Minneapolis, someone set fire to Ellis' shop. It was a sudden, brutal end to a business he's devoted his life to. At 42, Ellis doesn't just like being a barber, he loves it.

ELLIS: It's so you know, enjoyable because you can actually add to people life, you know? If they can look at their self in the mirror or get compliments from people that see them with a nice haircut, it actually makes people more positive, more lighthearted.

ZARROLI: When Ellis graduated from barber school, they gave him a kit with clippers and scissors. He rented space in a barbershop in a rough part of Minneapolis. In the process, he became part of a trend. Nationwide, the number of black-owned businesses grew 34% between 2007 and 2012 according to the Census Bureau - much faster than white businesses. Ron Busby, president of the U.S. Black Chambers, says there are 2.7 million black businesses in the United States.

RON BUSBY: Two-point-six million are not mom and pops, they're mom or pops.

ZARROLI: In other words, Busby says, they tend to be tiny - hairdressers, personal trainers, caterers. And in today's economic crisis, they're more vulnerable. Busby says, they're more likely than white businesses to use personal funds instead of bank loans. That's how Trevon Ellis did it. He used his profits to slowly build up his shop. And he hustled. He printed business cards and passed them out everywhere.

BUSBY: I was at restaurants, you know? I would leave a nice, little stack of them on the counter. I would ask the manager. And then just that small conversation would lead to a client. Hey, where you cut at, man? Give me one of those. So you know, it's - if you're motivated and self-driven, which is what it takes to be a barber, the financial part of it is limitless.

ZARROLI: This spring, the Fade Factory was forced to shut down when the coronavirus struck. It's been rough financially. But it's worse than that.

ELLIS: I was really bored, you know? I slept a lot. But you only can sleep so much. You only can surf the Internet so much. There's only so much social media you want to feed in your brain because you can't believe everything you see or hear on there.

ZARROLI: Ellis hoped to reopen once the restrictions were lifted. But Saturday night, he got a call telling him the Fade Factory was burning. He called 911. But too many fires were taking place. The fire trucks took hours to get there.

ELLIS: That night, I stayed until about 3:30, almost 4 a.m. I left, went home, fell asleep for about three hours, came back at 8 a.m., and the fire was still lit.

ZARROLI: Ellis says he understands why people protested.

ELLIS: But whoever torched that barbershop, I didn't deserve it. The community didn't deserve it. And definitely, that building owner didn't deserve it.

ZARROLI: But Ellis is already planning his comeback. A stranger started a GoFundMe page on his behalf. It's already raised more than $52,000. So Ellis will be a barber again. It's the only thing he wants to do.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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