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D.C. Barber Spruces Up Clients, Strives To Help Community

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John Campbell at "Campbell's Barbershop" in Ward 7. Campbell's been cutting hair for over 40 years.
Jocelyn Frank
John Campbell at "Campbell's Barbershop" in Ward 7. Campbell's been cutting hair for over 40 years.

John Campbell's been the owner and operator of his own barbershop since the 1960s. He sees it as a place for people to get a shape-up and close shave, but also as a base of operations to offer the community as a whole a makeover.

Campbell's been cutting hair for over 40 years and if you count his earliest days, he admits it's been far longer.

"I used to practice on my sister's doll-baby's hair," he says. His sister was not too pleased, but Campbell always tried to reassure her. "I told her it would grow back." But Campbell admits with a laugh, "It never did."

Campbell has an easy warmth about him. He's in his 60s with short-cropped hair and a thick horseshoe-shaped goatee. He wears round, wire-framed glasses and a lab coat. He has a pair of scissors or electric clippers in his hands nearly all the time.

Campbell's Barbershop is located at 5011 H Street SE in Ward 7. He prides himself on knowing his clients, staff and neighbors as well.

"We interconnect with each other," says Mario Murphy, who's known Campbell for years. "The barbershop is a place of knowledge and information where we all grow together, we all help each other. Need some clothes, he'll help you out with clothes, need shoes, he give you some shoes. He'll point you in the right direction."

Murphy grew up in the neighborhood, and as a young man he wasn't sure what path to follow. Campbell spent some time on him, offered him advice, guidance and a bit of professional coaching and now Murphy, a boxer, spends his nights in the ring, and cuts hair during the days at Campbell's shop.

"If it weren't for the barbershop," Murphy says, "I'd be outside somewhere doing something I wasn't supposed to do."

The beginnings of a barber

John Campbell grew up in the Arthur Capper neighborhood of southeast D.C., and says that from his earliest days he was excited about barbershops. About the time he turned 7 years old, his dad gave him a pair of clippers of his own. He went on to take a job sweeping the floors of a local place in town and he says, he discovered another world of excitement and enticement that barbershops could hold.

"They sold liquor, they wrote numbers, and they gambled in the back," he says. "There was a lot of money up there. I thought, 'gee, if I can get me a barbershop, and do the things that they be doing, I'll soon be rich!'"

But John Campbell set out, first, to finish school. In the summers he worked a variety of jobs starting, literally, from the ground up. He was a gravedigger at Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill, and then worked for Marriot. He worked at various establishments as a pot washer, a dishwasher and a fish-fryer. Along the way he explored psychology and ministry too. Throughout all those summer jobs and short-term gigs, Campbell explains he learned the value of treating the people around him with kindness.

"What goes around comes around, and I found out that is actually a true statement," he says. "The way you treat people... you treat them good, good things are gonna come to you because you're going to have that network of good people."

Campbell finished high school, went on to professional school and prepared for his barber-licensing test. For extra practice and to diversify his clientele, he gave free haircuts to the homeless and to others who struggled to afford a trim. What started off as a chance for John Campbell to practice cutting hair ending up giving him practice directly serving those less fortunate.

"People came back and thanked me for what I did for them, that I helped them." Campbell was a bit incredulous at the time.

"People told me how important I was in their life. And it made me feel great, that I was actually doing something. I was actually serving and helping mankind."

Helping others

By the time John Campbell earned his barbering license, he was less interested in the quick money that barbershops first represented to him. His commitment to service expanded beyond the walls of his business. He became known for organizing enormous parties, aimed at getting neighborhood kids and families to meet up in safe, positive ways. The parties, Campbell says, evolved over time.

"The first event was Campbell's Fun Festival," he says. "We had live go-go bands [but] the crowd got so big, we had to change the beat... We decided to have the gospel show. People liked it."

In 2012, he decided to try out an entirely new platform for community leadership. Campbell made a run for D.C. City Council.

It turned out to be an unsuccessful run, and his colleagues and friends at the barbershop laugh and joke with him about his results. In November 2012, John Campbell earned only 3.25 percent of the vote in Ward 7.

But he doesn't show any signs of discouragement. If he earned that many votes the last time around he says he can gather more if he tries again. If he does run, the guys at the shop have already begun offering him advice. They laugh as they tell him to try campaigning more widely next time. They suggest going beyond the doors of the barbershop.

For now, John Campbell seems content helping to make over the city one haircut and shape-up at a time.


[Music: "New Soul (Derlee Instrumental Remix)" by Yael Naim, remixed by DJ Derlee]

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