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Barbasol and a brew are ingredients for downtown's revival

Matt Berman opened Bolt Barbers in the old Owl Drugs spot. He says he believes in the city and wants his shop to be a gathering place as well as a grooming space.

December 14, 2009|Hector Tobar
  • Bolt Barbers owner Matt Berman has a full tattoo of a barbershop on his back. He's optimistic about the prospects of business in downtown. "Spring Street is destined to be one of the most beautiful streets in downtown Los Angeles," he says.
Bolt Barbers owner Matt Berman has a full tattoo of a barbershop on his back.… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Matt Berman believes that barbershops can change the world.

He'll take off his shirt to prove his passion -- by showing off his barbershop tattoo, which covers his entire back.

Last month, the 46-year-old former marketing executive said goodbye to a successful corporate career and opened a 10-chair shop downtown, at the corner of 5th and Spring streets.

"I always wanted to be a barber, ever since I was a kid," Berman told me. "I always loved to cut hair, but I never shared that with people. I was ashamed. Now I'm proud."

I just happened to walk by Bolt Barbers on the day it opened. I was startled for several reasons, but primarily by the simple words "Grand Opening" on the sign just under the new spinning barber pole.

We're in the midst of this economic crisis. And we know it's not over, no matter what our government says.

Why would someone open a business selling $22 haircuts when California's unemployment has soared to 12.5%, the highest level since the Great Depression? And why take such a chance in the heart of old L.A., in a storefront that's been abandoned for a few decades?

"I'm a man who thinks the suburbs have been responsible for killing the American spirit and American values," Berman told me. "We're supposed to build these castles and fill them up with our stuff. We move away from the city to isolate ourselves from diversity, to associate only with people who are like us."

Berman wants his barbershop to be a place where guys can hang out with other guys. "Guys crave community," he tells me. He's dreaming of the day when banking executives, avant-garde artists and hipster teenagers will fill those 10 chairs and just shoot the breeze while getting a haircut and shave.

If that day comes, a corner of old L.A. will come back to life, filled up with the freshly groomed faces of the new L.A.

In his own way, Berman's doing what economists and social scientists keep saying we have to do if we're going to have hope for our future.

The wise men and women who study the ailing body of our economy say we can't keep doing things the way we've always done them -- tossing away our old neighborhoods and sprawling farther and farther across the desert. We've got to learn to put community first.

The storefront that now houses Bolt Barbers is in the Rowan Building, erected in 1911 during the first boom of the last century. There were so many people living downtown back then that Owl Drugs was open all night on the spot Bolt now calls home.

"There's still an owl on the floor, and we kept it," Berman told me, pointing to a tile mosaic of a bird atop a mortar and pestle.

The growth of the 1950s and '60s moved the center of L.A. business westward, and the building stood vacant for years. The pharmacy closed down, and a section of nearby 5th Street became notorious for its heroin trade.

"One homeless guy was kind of in charge" of the empty, 12-story building, said Kevin Roache, a new tenant of the Rowan's remodeled loft apartments. "He would let people come in here and squat."

We allowed our city center to fester because L.A. was for so long addicted to boosterism, says Daniel Flaming, president of the Economic Roundtable, a research organization. There was always a new subdivision someplace, a new patch of empty real estate to conquer.

"Until the 1990s, we survived on myth," Flaming said. "People kept coming here for the sunshine, the beaches."

During the recession of the early 1990s, 1.5 million people left the region. And L.A. might look like Detroit does today, Flaming said, but for the immigrants from Latin America and Asia, who moved in where others moved out.

Near the abandoned Owl Drugs, on Broadway, many of the old storefronts survived and prospered by catering to Spanish speakers. The larger city beyond downtown became a less equal place, offering fewer paths to social mobility. It all happened, according to Flaming, because Southern California lagged behind other regions in planning for shifts in its economy.

"We're really just learning how to shape our own future," he said.

UCLA economist Leonard Scheiderman told me that Californians probably will need to rethink traditional concepts of education. He believes young people should take part in some sort of mandatory public service before entering the workforce and that it should be normal for people to go back to school in their 30s and 40s.

To move forward, in other words, we don't just have to reinvent the city. We have to be ready to reinvent ourselves.

Matt Berman began this process last year when he dropped out of what he describes as a successful but "incredibly unfulfilling" career in marketing.

First, he enrolled in barber college, learning the science of scissors and razors alongside students half his age.

"It's something I wanted to do when I was a kid, but I didn't because it was a craft," Berman told me. "I was taught that people became craftsmen because they had no choice, because they lacked intellect."

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