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Oakland's Moler Barber College Saved By Phil Tagami and California Commercial Investments - Oakland Tribune

Renowned barber college still stylin' in new location
Moler transplanted to Telegraph Avenue


OAKLAND — The spacious Moler Barber College salon on Telegraph Avenue was crowded with would-be barbers and stylists giving shaves and facials early one recent morning. Despite being a normally talkative bunch, no one uttered a peep.
For a full hour, the students silently honed their straight-razor shaving techniques, folded hot towels in the precise way and perfected the art of rejuvenating facial massages — all in preparation for rigorous practical state board exams in March.
That this scene happened at all is amazing, because it wasn't so long ago that Oakland's 95-year-old barberschool — one of the few in the Bay Area — was in danger of closing for good.

Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, which is expanding its North Oakland campus, had purchased the storefront building on Broadway, where Moler students had shampooed, shaped and styled countless heads for the past 25 years.
Moler owner Elsia Curry received an eviction notice and tried to find someone who would buy and relocate the business. As the months went on and the nibbles stopped, Curry thought about closing up.

No one could have blamed her. She took over the business when her husband died unexpectedly in 1997, only five months after he purchased the school. Curry was retired from the U.S. Postal Service and didn't know the first thing about barbering, accreditation or a million other nagging details involved in running the business.
The work was grueling; dreams of vacations danced in her head.

Still, Curry isn't the type to cut and run. She runs the school with a military-like strictness, but the students know she's a softie. They begged her not to give up and, lo and behold, Oakland city officials stepped in to help. California Commercial Investments offered a new space with a 10-year lease on Telegraph Avenue.

The news couldn't have been better for the next generation of Moler barber grads being groomed to shape and fade heads around the Bay Area.

Bill McCall and Jerron Robertson are getting ready to take their state board exams in mid-March. Both were students at the former location and share an easy camaraderie born after months spent together over barber chairs.
The young men swapped barber lore and funny styling tips, but Robertson wasn't kidding when he spoke about the difference Curry had made in his life.

"Mrs. Curry gives us a second chance," he said. "I was in (barber) school and got in trouble, went to jail. Mrs. Curry welcomed me back. She saved a lot of people from trouble.

"I got three kids," he said. "Being a barber is my last chance."

Though Robertson expects to go to work at his brother-in-law's barber shop in El Sobrante, McCall, a photographer and videographer, has other ideas. He wants to open a mobile barber shop.

"Barbering was a goal of mine before I left Chicago," he said, pointing to two dollar bills taped to the wall above his station — one marked with felt pen as his first tip at the old location and the other as his first tip at the Telegraph location.

"I had a 15-year goal that I'm doing in 10 years, so I'm five years ahead of myself. It's fun. As long as you're happy doing what you're doing, you'll be all right."

There aren't many barber colleges left, and Curry's students travel far and wide. Some said they always knew that they wanted to be barbers; others spent time in minimum-wage retail jobs before deciding to pick up electric shears and a straight edge.

Sean Potter, 34, of Tracy, enrolled in the college after his first career choice ended in disappointment. Potter spent six years with the Oakland Police Department before retiring in August with a back injury. He has logged three months as a student at Moler and thinks it's a good fit.

"I got a bad haircut as a teenager, and I vowed that would never happen again," Potter said. "So before I went away to college, I asked my mother to get me a set of clippers."

Curry said she's happy about the school's spacious, 25-station new home. Each station displays a mannequin head on which the students practice hair colors before trying it on the paying customers, who start streaming through the glass doors by mid-morning.

She's also clear about the future of the school, but she's keeping her own plans close to the vest.
"Change is good," she said. "Everyone loves it here. Over there was home, and we're trying to make this home. We have a 10-year lease, but I may not be here all that long.

"We'll see what the future holds," she said with a smile.
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