There are seven barbershops in San Luis Obispo, a city with a population of approximately 45,000.
The barbershops farthest from one another, University Barber Shop and SLO Town Barber Shop, are a mere 3 miles apart. Ray’s Barber Shop, Anderson Barber Shop, The Barber, Clippers Barber Shop and Kut to be the Best Barber Shop all sit somewhere in between.
The ability for seven barbershops to coexist in such close proximity without razor-sharp competition is a testament to each one’s uniqueness. No two barbershops are alike, and in this series, several of these will be spotlighted.
This week, Kut to be the Best on California Boulevard shows off its swagger.
Terry Guilford Jr. moves a sharpened blade carefully up a man’s bare cheek. Guilford’s hand is steadily controlled, but his lips move as he spits out rap lyrics in time with the music surging through the shop.
Hip-hop undulates throughout the barbershop. But hip-hop doesn’t just come out of the speakers; it’s the undercurrent to Kut to be the Best’s culture.
It’s a hip-hop barbershop, one that’s carved out a niche in San Luis Obispo: a suburban community that’s only 1.8 percent black. Of a population of 44,948, only 809 are black, according to the 2011 Community Economic Profile Demographics.
Kut to be the Best is a center for minority community culture in San Luis Obispo, Guilford Jr. said.
“If you’re from a bigger city with a bigger black population, this is one of the only places in town where you can get that feeling, that feeling that maybe you’re at home for a while,” Guilford Jr. said.
If there’s one word to describe Guilford Jr., it’s unapologetic.
“This is our shop, these are our people,” he said. “If you’re not cool with rap music and graffiti, then you’re not for us, and we’re not for you.”
Receptionist Suzy Roberts, a Cuesta College student, chimes in.
“Our music is unedited,” Roberts said. “It says ‘pussy’ and ‘fuck’ and stuff. My high school math teacher came in the other day, and he got a culture shock, but we don’t compromise our shop’s culture.”
Guilford Jr. shrugs and interjects.
“We’re a modern barbershop with traditional techniques,” he said. “Either you like it and want to be a part of it or you’ll stay away.”
Still, despite being a self-described “black barber shop,” Guilford Jr. says approximately 65 percent of Kut to be the Best’s customers are white.
What’s it like being a black barbershop in a white community?
“A fucking goldmine,” Guilford Jr. said.
“We’re just getting started. I want to be the McDonald’s of barber shops,” he said. “And you know McDonald’s, they’re everywhere — black or white, ghetto or suburban.”
Man with a mission
Guilford Jr. has a three-tenet mission: to inspire hygiene, self-confidence and community responsibility.
Kut to be the Best Barber Shop is one of only two barbershops in San Luis Obispo — along with SLO Town Barber Shop — that do straight-razor facial shaves.
“We’re one of the only real barber shops in SLO because we use a straight-razor shave,” Guilford Jr. said. “You can’t be a real barber without it. It’s disrespectful. It’s like being a construction worker without a hammer.”
Razor shaves, tapers and fades are Guilford Jr.’s specialties.
For him, inspiring self-confidence is key.
“The best thing about my job is I get to make people feel good,” he said.
“I could go around and pass out business cards all day, but really, at the end of the day, this is my business card,” Guilford Jr. said, motioning to Cal Poly running back coach Aristotle Thompson’s head.
“When I first started, I told the football coach, ‘I’m gonna help you guys get better,'” Guildford Jr. said. “What player wants to come here if there’s no real barbershop? And how’re they gonna play their best if they don’t feel their best?”
“Look good, play good,” coach Thompson says from his seat.
Guilford Jr. also emphasizes community outreach and responsibility.
“It’s important for me being a black person in a white community to set a positive example,” he said.
“I realized it back when I was working at my other barbershop,” Guilford Jr. said. “It was in a bad neighborhood, and I realized that if I didn’t help these kids, they were gonna be robbing me in five or 10 years.”
Guilford Jr. opens his shop up to high school boys who work there, sweeping floors and other manual labor tasks.
“It keeps them out of trouble,” Roberts said. “Who knows? If they keep doing this, they might be barbers one day with their own businesses too.”
Kut to be the Best also works closely with outreach programs, such as the Salvation Army and Prado Day Center, Roberts said.
Barbershops have long been a place where community and commerce intersect, and Kut to be the Best prides itself on continuing that tradition.
Mechanical engineering sophomore Nate Holder waits to get his hair cut.
“This barbershop is about community,” Holder said.
It’s a community Guilford Jr. cut out himself.