Des Moines ‘Black barbershop’ building now a local landmark

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Steve Wilke-Shapiro wasn’t empty-handed when he arrived at Harlan Thomas’ home Wednesday night. In a dimly lit living room, Wilke-Shapiro passed Thomas a small white envelope.

“I found some pictures. They’d fallen behind some cabinets,” said Wilke-Shapiro, settling into a corner spot on Thomas’ sectional sofa. “So I brought these for you if you want to take a look.”

Wilke-Shapiro, a longtime architect and member of the Des Moines Urban Design Review Board, recently purchased Thomas’ old barbershop in the Woodland Heights neighborhood. He plans to restore the 110-year-old building and create a new office for his firm, Sequel Architecture.

The Des Moines Register reports he also proposed making the legendary Harlan’s Barber Shop a Des Moines city landmark, which the City Council approved Monday. It’s now recognized as a storied piece of Des Moines’ history.

Landmark status also means the building will qualify for historic tax credits and any alterations or demolition would be subject to Landmark Review Board review and require City Council approval.

When the city of Des Moines announced on Facebook early last month that Thomas’ barbershop could become a local landmark, several people shared memories of Thomas and his tiny white building at 2513 Woodland Ave. that became a spot for the Black community, and not just for haircuts.

Wilke-Shapiro used his firm’s Facebook page to connect with some commenters — and to reach Thomas himself — to collect details about the shop’s past and what it meant for the city and its Black residents.

But Wilke-Shapiro’s meeting with Harlan Thomas and his wife, April Thomas, offered more insight into the barbershop’s 40-plus-year history than the single social media post could ever garner.

“Who’s that?” Harlan, 82, asked April, pointing to one of the old, faded photos from Wilke-Shapiro.

“They’re your kids,” the 61-year-old April answered.

The three sat together for about half an hour. Wilke-Shapiro asked Harlan about his career as a barber and jazz musician and the shop that bore witness to it all. With each curious question, Harlan, who sat relaxed on the big sofa, answered them one by one, stringing together what he could remember about his past life.

Harlan said he became a barber in his early 20s, graduating at the top of his class in barber school. But he recalled his very first attempt to cut hair was at 17 — which ended up in a total disaster.

Harlan said his friend was trying to save some money and asked him to cut, and “I messed him up so bad. I whacked him up. I didn’t know what I was doing.” Harlan said he stayed up all night long worrying, wondering whether his friend was going to show up for work and if he could even hide Harlan’s mistakes.

“He comes into work the next day, and I looked at it — and it didn’t look so bad,” said Harlan, laughing. “I said, ‘Hey, what did you do?’ He said, ‘Look real close.’ I looked real close. He put eyebrow pencil (to line up the haircut).”

But after that mishap and proper training at the Iowa Barber College, the young Harlan quickly became a pro. He spent about seven years cutting hair at another Black barbershop — Hinkey’s on University Avenue and 11th Street — before opening up his own business in 1968.

At 31, Harlan took out a loan to buy the building at 2513 Woodland Ave., which once served as a grocery store, and spent the next 47 years running his barbershop until it closed in 2015. For many Black residents displaced by redlining and urban renewal projects, the shop became an institution.

“Everybody would say, ‘Go to Harlan,’” April said. “He was like the best barber.”

That’s because “all his sons were his demos,” joked Bill Thomas, one of Harlan’s children, in a phone interview with the Register. But the truth is Black hair care is an art form. From afros to fades — and everything in between — he said his father knew how to capture it.

“Just the way he could cut and his hands would just be still,” said Bill, who later became a barber and briefly worked with his father at the shop in the 1990s.

April Thomas said she’d see cars lined up along Woodland Avenue and wrap around the corner — all of them belonging to her husband’s customers. The couple said the shop served mostly Black men and women, with the front reserved for male clients and the back a beauty salon for women.

At 68, Ted Jefferson, a former customer and lifelong Des Moines resident, still pictures the photos taped to a wall by Harlan’s barber chair, an open diary that kept track of the people and the years that passed.

“My son’s photo was up there for decades,” he said. Jefferson’s son was 18 months old when Harlan cut his hair, marking a milestone. “If you had your photo in his collage, it was sort of a badge of honor.”

The building’s basement served as a practice space for Harlan’s bands and at one point, a home for the owner. In the 1970s, Harlan said he hung up disco lights that flashed to the beat of the song blasting from a stereo system.

And during the tail end of the 1980s, Rev. Jesse Jackson, then a presidential hopeful campaigning in Des Moines, became a brief customer of Harlan’s.

That place was a “quintessential Black barbershop,” Jefferson said. “You’d go there, and you’d see your friends. You would probably carve out a couple of hours of your day to go there and wait for Harlan’s chair to open or one of his associates and get your hair cut.”

April said she remembered all too well, delivering meals to Harlan when the shop was at its busiest.

“I used to hate it when he would call me on a Saturday and ask me to bring him dinner,” she said. “I’d have to get through a whole crowd to get to him.”

Growing up in Des Moines, Lance Williams knew Harlan’s Barber Shop as the spot where he experienced a lot of his own firsts. That’s where he got one of his first haircuts and saw his very first Oster Classic 76 hair clipper. Harlan also was one of the very first Black business owners Williams saw around the city.

“He showed us it can be done,” said Williams, 42, who later became a barber.

Decades ago, you could count on one hand the number of Black barbershops in Des Moines, Williams said. And as time passed, Harlan’s Barber Shop stood strong.

A shy kid, Bill said hanging around his father’s shop helped him step out of his comfort zone. Working there as an adult only gave him the chance to learn from the best.

When Bill joined the shop, his father renamed it Harlan & Bill’s Imperial Hair Styles. Their slogan was: “Catch me if you can. I’ll give you the best haircut in the land.”

And like his father, Bill spent some late nights at the shop. There were times when he’d reopen the shop after his father closed it, turn the stereo and strobe lights back on and cut hair into the early hours of the morning.

“I had my own key but I had to make sure he knew because he didn’t like me touching his stuff,” he said, laughing. “Every time he came back (he’d say), ‘You used this, didn’t you? You didn’t put this back in the right place.’ I’m like, ‘You’re right. You’re right.’ I think that’s where I get my OCD from.”

Back in the Thomas’ living room, the couple told Wilke-Shapiro that their lives are much quieter now: in bed by 9 p.m. after they finish their TV programs.

April joked that Harlan’s making up for all those late nights, working at the barbershop or playing at different clubs around the state with his bandmates.

In between chit-chat and anecdotes, Harlan asked Wilke-Shapiro about his plans to convert the former grocery store and barbershop into an office.

With a target August opening, Wilke-Shapiro said he has his work cut out for him. The building as it stands has no electricity, heating or plumbing and needs major exterior renovations.

Wilke-Shapiro also is mindful of the building’s history and wants to keep aspects of it to honor the Thomas family. He’s looking to possibly reuse the old sinks, salvage one of the barber chairs and try to preserve the front glass window with the painted barber pole.

“There’s a little pressure to make sure I treat the building right and honor the story of the people,” Wilke-Shapiro said.

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