Drexel student runs a dorm-room barbershop

Manny Okyere, a construction-management major, cuts the hair of friend and fellow Drexel student John Tan. Behind them is his Wall of Fame of customers. SHAJ MATHEW / Staff
Manny Okyere, a construction-management major, cuts the hair of friend and fellow Drexel student John Tan. Behind them is his Wall of Fame of customers. SHAJ MATHEW / Staff (Manny Okyere,)
Posted: March 17, 2012

At first glance, Room 606 of this Drexel University high-rise looks like a typical college pad along John F. Kennedy Boulevard. Strewn about the spartan yet spacious apartment are guitars, hundreds of vinyl records, fast-food leftovers on the kitchen table, a PlayStation, and a fish tank.

Then there is the full-size barber chair - in the bathroom.

This is not some curio like the vinyl collection, though. Drexel sophomore Manny Okyere, 19, runs his own barbershop out of the oversize bathroom that he shares with three roommates.

At the moment, the barbershop is more hobby than business, since Okyere, a construction-management major, cannot charge for haircuts anymore. Earlier in the year, his building, University Crossings, learned of his $8-per-haircut operation and warned him that he could not operate a for-profit business in the dorm because it violates the building policy.

But that does not keep Okyere from cutting hair gratis. Including his roommates'.

"I don't mind, to be honest," Okyere said. "I'm here to provide a service. In life, the most successful people provide a service to other people instead of doing something for themselves."

"It's a good way to network. Everything in life is tailored around who you know. This is a good way to meet people. Maybe someone will take off."

Okyere's clientele mostly consists of his friends, though according to John Tan, 21, a Drexel sophomore, that is no small number: "Manny knows every single person in this building." Six superstitious members of the Drexel basketball team also visited Manny before almost every regular-season game. "They're on a winning streak," Okyere explained earlier this month, before the team's March 6 loss.

On average he sees about 10 clients a week, though he once saw 50 when Snoop Dogg came to town in January. "People wanted to look nice for parties and the concert," Okyere said.

Okyere, who emigrated from Ghana in 1995, estimated that he spends about five hours each week cutting hair, though he said that it hardly feels like work. "It's almost as if someone were playing a video game with me."

Tan says the same: "Most of the time the haircuts are like hanging out." It is not too far from the truth: When it is time for Tan to get a trim, he places his iPod on the dock and hip-hop music pulses through the room as the two chat.

Okyere has been cutting hair since his freshman year at Upper Darby High School. "I was going to an event at night and needed a haircut," said Okyere, but it was late and all the barbershops had closed. "I had a pair of clippers in the house, so I said, 'Why not?' It didn't turn out that great but I continued for a while and got better by cutting my family's hair." Last year, local barber Jordan Cuento gave him some pointers.

Most appointments are set up on an ad-hoc basis, via text message and Facebook. Okyere often cuts hair late into the night. "A lot of students get out of work really late - I have friends who never get a haircut before 9. So out of convenience to them, I try to cut later."

Okyere credits Drexel's diversity with making him a more versatile barber as well. "Because it's a college campus, I have to deal with lots of different types of hair. It's a good thing that I can do multiple styles. Most barbers only cater to one ethnicity - some people will go to the barbershop and they'll say they can't cut your hair."

Besides running this informal barbershop, Okyere works two to three days a week at the front desk at another dorm. Some weeks have been especially hectic, but "I'd rather keep busy than do nothing all the time," said Okyere. According to his brother Saka Okyere, 26, Manny has his priorities in order. "At the end of the day he's here for school. He's managing his time effectively."

"It's impressive," Saka continued. "I've been waiting for him to cut my hair for three weeks!"

Next semester, Okyere hopes to move to an off-campus house, where he will be able to charge for haircuts again and operate out of a room specifically outfitted for haircutting.

"This is my dream," Okyere said, "but I also realize that it's not easy to own a barbershop." Nodding to his expected degree in construction management, he is realistic about his future career. "First I'll try to use the abilities I have in other areas, and maybe after a few years I'll have enough money to open a real barbershop."

What Okyere has created in his dorm-room bathroom is not too far from the real thing, though.

Okyere spends almost a half an hour with Tan's hair. After he scans Tan's head from a number of angles, Okyere spins the chair toward the mirror.

"I'm satisfied," says Tan. "This one's going on the wall."

Okyere grins wide and snaps a photo. Tan sweeps up his own hair and then leaves. Within minutes Okyere's phone is abuzz. Another client is on his way up.

Contact Shaj Mathew at 215-854-2771 or smathew@philly.com.