It’s All About That Belt

Oakland barber Tyrone Burns is on a mission to rid the city of sagging pants.


Barber Tyrone Burns does what he can to encourage his customers to give up sagging.

Stephen Texeira

A haircut at Tyrone Burns’ barbershop costs $25. For that, you get a trim and a shave, an admonishment to stay in school, a snack, a hug, and, sometimes, a belt.

“This is a respectable establishment,” Burns, 46, explained solemnly while between clients at his immaculate, sun-filled shop on 82nd Avenue. “If someone comes in with sagging pants, I say, ‘Look, brother, pull your pants up.’ If they need a belt, I give them one. Sometimes they get mad. Then I surprise them with a free haircut and tell them I respect them for respecting the rules. After that, they don’t come in here again with sagging pants.”

Burns’ business, Pull Up Your Pants Barbershop, is a hairspray-scented mix of life-coaching, community center, and fashion. “No Cursing in the Barbershop” is emblazoned on the window. A “kiddie corner” is reserved for homework and after-school snacks. On holidays, Burns serves four-course meals to the neighborhood, and he’s employed dozens of local young people. On his days off, Burns cuts hair for free for the homeless and for kids who can’t afford it.

But for Burns, it’s really about the belts. For him, sagging pants equal moral, spiritual, and physical decrepitude. And if those problems can be solved with a belt, Burns will deliver a belt to every lost, sagging soul in Deep East Oakland.

Since opening his shop in 2005, he has given out more than 2,000 belts of all kinds. Most of them have been donated via “belt drives” he’s organized, but hundreds he has purchased himself, spending $100 a week or more at Shoe Pavilion in Emeryville.

“My pockets are empty, but I feel rich in spirit, so I don’t mind spending the money,” Burns said. “Some of these guys will spend hundreds on a pair of shoes and then can’t afford a belt. But the truth is, it’s uncomfortable holding your pants up all the time. When they finally get a belt, they’re grateful.”

Burns has not always been such a pillar of generosity. Just before opening his barbershop, he had spent 10 years in prison for assault, among other charges. It was after his release that he decided to embrace the strict moral standards and religious faith with which he had been raised. His mother and the crew at Allen Temple Baptist Church inspired him to change paths.

His mother, Claudia Palmer, grew up picking cotton in Mississippi and raised five children, mostly as a single parent. Her tough work ethic and high personal standards left a deep impression on Burns.

“When we were kids, it was all ‘Yes, ma’m,’ ‘Yes, sir,’ ” Burns said. “Our life was church, home, school, church, home, school. That’s it. On weekends we were allowed to watch Hee Haw on our black-and-white TV. ”

When Burns was 13, he moved from Jackson, Miss., to Oakland with his family. Two years after that, he got his first pair of hair clippers. His initial motivation for cutting hair was to earn lunch money, so he wouldn’t be embarrassed accepting the government-issued lunches for poor kids at school.

Over the years he has relied on his hair-cutting skills to support himself, usually working in other people’s barbershops. But after his release from prison, he began to be put off by the rough language, occasional marijuana use, and, of course, the sagging pants he would see among customers.

One day he was walking in his neighborhood and saw a “For Rent” sign on a small shop on 82nd Avenue and, on a lark, decided to apply. He had little money, no credit, and a criminal record.

 “I didn’t know what to write on the form,” he said. “So I wrote, ‘If you give me an opportunity, I will give back to the community, and I will take care of your property.’ The landlord said yes. I couldn’t believe it—I was 35, broke, and never had a break in my life.”

Using money from the sale of his ’75 Cadillac, Burns opened shop in 2005, determined to run a clean establishment that would be more than a barbershop. By 2008, he was successful enough to move to larger quarters next door and helped a friend start a doughnut shop in the previous space. The doughnut shop proprietors, Terry and Tracy Blue, who sell the best homemade banana pudding Oakland has ever produced, are forever grateful to Burns.

 “We have a successful business because of him,” Terry Blue said. “This corner didn’t used to be so nice, but we’re in a good place now. People hang out and talk, bring their kids. There’s no problems. We enjoy coming here every day. We all feel safe.”

True enough, the corner of 82nd Avenue and Hillside Street, in the area between MacArthur and Foothill known as the Shady Eighties, is clean and busy with visitors. The building is freshly painted, people sit outside and chat. Even the trees look healthy and cared for. Before Pull Up Your Pants moved in, the building housed a liquor store.

Melvin Harrell, 24, was at Burns’ shop recently getting a haircut before a job interview. A regular customer, he has known Burns all his life.

“When I was younger, I didn’t like getting haircuts, and he’d always talk to me, calm me down,” Harrell said. “He’s been around a long time and has a lot of wisdom. It’s good to see a black man doing something, owning his own business, giving back. He’s just a cool guy.”

 Pull Up Your Pants was nominated in 2016 for an Oakland Indie Award, and Burns enjoys his newfound respectability in the community. Nonetheless, he still has to work temp jobs occasionally to make ends meet and has the intensity and seriousness of someone in a rush to get everything done.

“Listen, if I was to die today, the system would say I was a convicted felon,” he said. “My life has not been the greatest. But I want to clear my name, leave behind something for my kids to be proud of.”

He paused and looked pensively around his shop.

 “Life is full of struggle. You just have to deal with it as it comes. I hear people’s problems all day at the barbershop and I know it’s true,” he said. “But God put these clippers in my hands for a reason. Sometimes I feel like, put on your seat belt, because it’s going to be a roller coaster ride.”

Published online on Oct. 12, 2016 at 8:00 a.m.

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