As another opening date approaches in Texas, Austin barbers, salon owners eye future warily

Kirby Schimmels Sr. cuts hair at his downtown barbershop in 2019. When Kirby the Barber reopens May 11, he will cut hair out of a new shop at his Hyde Park home, while his son, Kirby Schimmels Jr., will work downtown. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
Kirby Schimmels Sr. cuts hair at his downtown barbershop in 2019. When Kirby the Barber reopens May 11, he will cut hair out of a new shop at his Hyde Park home, while his son, Kirby Schimmels Jr., will work downtown. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)

Kirby Schimmels Sr. cuts hair at his downtown barbershop in 2019. When Kirby the Barber reopens May 11, he will cut hair out of a new shop at his Hyde Park home, while his son, Kirby Schimmels Jr., will work downtown. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)

Kirby Schimmels Sr. has been playing it by the book since his shop closed down in March. He and his son, Kirby Schimmels Jr., operate a barber shop on Brazos Street in downtown Austin, Kirby the Barber, which is usually alive with constant activity as customers come in for 20-minute appointments to get a touch-up, a shave or a beard trim.

There has been none of that over the last two months since stay-at-home orders shut down businesses across the country. Schimmels Sr. estimates the pause has cost the business about $10,000 a month. Still, he has not been cutting corners, making appointments on the side or defying Gov. Greg Abbott's orders by opening up shop.

The trade means too much to him to take that risk, Schimmels Sr. said.

"It's the only thing I know how to do, and if I lost my license it would be devastating," he said.

On May 8, barbershops and salons across Texas will be allowed to open, provided they can ensure at least 6 feet of social distancing between workstations.


Abbott's recommendations, for which compliance is "strongly recommended," according to protocols issued by his office, include limiting the number of clients, offering less complex and time-consuming services, checking customers' temperatures, and always having both employees and customers wear face coverings.

Some barbershop and salon owners made the decision to open May 8, such as Scott Ma, who owns the Lavish Nails and Spa location near the intersection of Loop 360 and RM 2222. Others, such as Reunion Barbershop owner Ashley "Ace" Gibbs, are going to take a little more time—she plans to open up June 1.

But all the barbershop and nail salon owners who spoke with Community Impact Newspaper said they are not approaching the opening with pure relief about opening the doors back up—each were somewhat cautious about their outlook of the future and adamant safety measures would need to increase on both the customer and the business side.

"We're going to open, but we have to be smart about it," Ma said.

Gibbs said she was "anxious" when she sat down to watch the governor's May 5 press conference. She has Type 1 diabetes, so if she were to contract the coronavirus, it would be harder for her to recover than a person without underlying health conditions.

When she reopens Reunion Barbershop, appointment slots will be longer to allow for extra sanitation procedures, so she will be seeing fewer customers at her one-woman shop.

"I feel like the beginning of June is safest; it gives me time to kind of see the scientific data behind the reopening and what they’re going to entail," she said.

Kirby the Barber will reopen for appointments May 11 in two locations. Schimmels Jr. will cut hair downtown, and his father will work out of a shop he has set up out of his home in the Hyde Park neighborhood on Red River Street. Schimmels Sr. said the nature of the business necessitates the extreme safety precautions, and he will dress "like a surgeon," with head-to-toe protective gear when he starts cutting hair again—to protect himself, his son, his customers and his business.

"If I get sick, or Kirby Jr. gets sick, we have no one to fill that chair to pay rent," Schimmels Sr. said.

'A different pace'

Gibbs has been cutting hair since she was 19 years old, and the road to opening her own shop included a two-year stint in Colorado and a plan put on hold—which she says is still in the works—to open a truck offering shaves from a mobile barber truck catering to wedding groomsmen needing shaves and haircuts.

When the space that became Reunion Barbershop on Anderson Mill Road became available for lease, she said she was scared to take the leap, but she knew it was a move she had to make. Less than a month after opening, she had to close up shop.

"I was pretty heartbroken when I had to put that sign on the door," Gibbs said.

Still, despite everything she put into the business and all that it means to her, Gibbs is not ready to throw the doors open May 8. Instead, she will take an extra few weeks, and the service she will operate will have to be the "new normal" for a while.

"It's going to be limited services, limited guests, limited hours," Gibbs said.

Ma, the owner of Lavish Nail Salon and Spa, was gearing up to open a second location on South Lamar Boulevard in June. He is still eyeing that opening date, but a new level of uncertainty has been thrown into the plans after losing income during the shutdown. Ma said April is usually his busiest month for manicure and pedicure clients.

Even with so much riding on new income coming in, Ma is taking a cautious approach. He installed new shields on all the manicure tables ahead of the opening, and when Lavish opens up on May 8, customers will no longer be able to get a manicure and pedicure at the same time. Instead, they will have to wait to get the services separately.

Because of the limited appointments and hours—as well as some hesitation on the employees' part in returning—only about half of the technicians will be coming back at Lavish, Ma said.

"We're not going to be fully staffed. It's tough, but we have to get back," he said.

Schimmels Sr. and Gibbs were both critical of the governor's approach to opening barbershops and salons. Gibbs said she was grateful to have the ability to make her own decisions, but she felt the state was rushing into the opening process without proper foresight.

Schimmels Sr. said there could have been an effective way to get barbers and stylists back to work—including testing for antibodies—but instead he saw the governor's direction as little more than to "do your best."

No matter when barbershops and salons decide to open, the owners and proprietors agreed nothing will be the same as it was before. For Schimmels Sr., that means a fundamental change—from the fast-paced hustle and bustle of running a downtown shop to cutting hair in the side room of his Hyde Park home.

"We just can’t go through it like that anymore. It’s going to be a different pace," he said.