FOUNTAIN PARK – In black neighborhoods, blacks don’t usually own the businesses, especially beauty supply stores. That’s very obvious in north St. Louis.
Not Bowen’s Barber and Beauty Supply. It’s owned and operated by James “Jimmy” Bowen, a tall, slender, bearded black man from Aberdeen, Miss. He opened the business in 1980 at 1124 N. Kingshighway Blvd. in the Fountain Park neighborhood. About 3 years later, he opened a second location, at 9112 W. Florissant Ave. in Ferguson.
Bowen moved to St. Louis in 1967. He started cutting hair in 1969, the same year he graduated barber school.
He’s been in the barber and beauty supply game so long, he remembers when blacks owned the gas stations in their neighborhoods.
The first half of his six months of barber school was at a segregated barbering college downtown. The last three months of his barber education took place at a school that had just integrated.
He’s seen a lot.
When he first went into the beauty business in 1980, business owners in the hair care industry had to go to Las Vegas every year to meet all of the distributors. Once you did that, you were in, he said.
Some of those supplies that he copped back then, including old-school combs and curling irons, Bowen’s still has to this day. Thus, the two-sided building is crowded, but the old, odd supplies set him apart from other beauty supply stores.
“The business has changed a little bit, but I still hold my own, because I’ve got my regular customers and I have some stuff they might not have, so people come here and buy it from me,” Bowen said.
Cosmetologist and customer Jimel Jones backs Bowen’s claim. She grew up the neighborhood, and although she no longer lives there, she still shops there.
“If there was a product that used to work and it’s better than the new one, Bowen’s always had that product, and he would walk straight to it,” Jones said.
“He has the best of the new school and the old school – and he has a wealth of knowledge about all of it – it trips you out,” Jones added.
Bowen’s largest customer base is other barbers. They buy supplies, but they also go to Bowen’s to get their hair clippers sharpened and repaired. On the average, Bowen said, they spend from $50 to $100 per visit.
While cosmetologists spend less than than barbers at Bowen’s, he does have a loyal female patronage, women who rely on him for beauty supplies.
That’s good for Bowen, who makes sure he stocks the latest beauty products.
In the United States, Black women spend an estimated $7.5 billion annually on beauty products, according to Nielsen, a global consumer and market measurement and data analytics company.
Of course, Bowen loves getting his share of the market, about a half million a year by his estimates. But he also likes the interaction and conversations with customers. And he takes pleasure in helping to recirculate African-Americans’ dollars among blacks, boosting their economy.
“It’s a pleasure to do business with black people because we really need to help one another. It makes me feel good every day,” Bowen said.
He’s been doing that for 39 years and barbering for 50. Over the years, his children have worked in the shop and store with him. One of his daughters, Jennifer, is currently a barber there.
His plan is to eventually pass his business on to his children. However, he isn’t quite done building his legacy. He and his daughters are currently in talks with bankers and contractors to expand.
“The Chinese, the Arabs, have tried to buy me out, but I wasn’t going to do that. I want to keep this going and want my kids and grandkids to keep it,” Bowen said.
Bowen’s is open six days a week, but when he isn’t working, he plays basketball with his grandchildren. Sometimes on Saturday night, he hits a local lounge. He still goes to church on Sundays and spends time with with friends.
“One day off is good enough for me, plus I get some down time when I’m at work,” he said.
His advice for the business: “Work under someone for about three to five years until you get a chokehold on the business, then make sure you buy the building.”
Other than that, he said, make sure you go to work every day and have what the people want.