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He Was Out of Work and About To Be a Father, so He Ran a Barber ‘Speakeasy’ During the Pandemic To Get By

4:37 PM PDT on April 21, 2021

[dropcap size=big]W[/dropcap]alk through the Uptown Whittier Promenade, and you’ll be greeted by an array of makeshift patios and tables of maskless patrons. The level of sophistication and comfort varies by storefront. What’s consistent is a deep faith in small businesses and community.

The pandemic initially forced businesses to close their doors, but various adjustments to regulations allowed some small businesses in Uptown to adapt to the COVID economy in creative ways early on.

But step away from the promenade and into the alleys of Uptown, and you’ll find a humble backdoor, the host of Uptown's most creative and clandestine COVID operation: The Backdoor Boogie, a prohibition-style barbershop speakeasy, run by shop manager Del. 

Inside the barber speakeasy. Photo by Heriberto Rodriguez for L.A. TACO.

Today, Del is 25 and a father. One year and one pandemic ago, he was 24 and expecting his first child. March 2020, when Governor Newsom issued a state-wide stay-at-home order to fight the spread of COVID, Del was unsure how he would support his growing family and his team.

“You know, they said two weeks. ‘Alright, cool, we can do that. I was okay with that,” Del tells L.A. TACO.  “But after, it was like, ‘Alright, well we’re not getting any money. How are we gonna live?” The initial lockdown didn’t quell Del’s worries. Two weeks became a month. A lack of consistency between levels of government and no clear plan through and past the pandemic made it hard for Del and other barbers to plan their futures. 

“What is $1,200 gonna do for how long we were closed? That doesn’t pay a month’s rent.”

Last spring’s stimulus, received as part of the CARES Act, helped Del and other barbers withstand the first wave of lockdowns. But when the second wave hit and barbershops in Whittier were forced to shut their doors again, Del and his coworkers grew concerned. He shared, “After two weeks, a month, it was like, ‘Obviously we’re on our own.’”

Combs getting sanitized. Photo by Heriberto Rodriguez for L.A. TACO.

Squints felt the absence of clear help from local and state governments directly. He shared, “I understood that it was a bigger picture than I could understand; it’s a pandemic. But I didn’t understand how there was no plan to back us up after two weeks.”

With no direct support and no clear options on how to continue financially, Del and his team of barbers decided to continue operating despite government shutdowns. Squints, remember the decision, “It was a collaboration. All of us, you know, we needed to pay our bills, so we had to do something.”

“Right when it happened, I found out I was gonna be a dad. So there was no other choice for me. It was literally like, do it, or do it.”

But as the shop manager, the decision weighed on Del especially. “I definitely gave the guys the choice to stay home. I knew it wasn’t an easy time to work. Ultimately, it was a shop choice.” Del was also starting a family, and his newborn daughter factored heavily into his decision. He shared, “Right when it happened, I found out I was gonna be a dad. So there was no other choice for me. It was literally like, do it, or do it.”

And so, the Backdoor Boogie was born. 

Since last summer, whenever a government shutdown would order the front doors shut, the Backdoor Boogie would begin, with the message spread only by social media and word of mouth. Each wave, loyal clients have adjusted their routine to come in through the back when the boogie is on. “I’ve kept my schedule. I don’t have much hair left, but the hair I do have, I’ll cut at least once a month. I’ll text them, and they just say, ‘Backdoor,’” recalls Ricky.

A sign inside the barber speakeasy. Photo by Heriberto Rodriguez for L.A. TACO.

Ricky has been a client of Del’s for nearly five years and has a business of his own in Uptown, where he’s lived his entire life. Ricky shared how important it was to have the Backdoor Boogie right in his backyard, “It gave me that sense of normalcy. You can go and just feel distracted from everything going on. All the negative,” he shared.

The Backdoor Boogie faced its share of challenges. The biggest of which was the most obvious: the looming threat of the law. While Del and the boys never caught heat, the threat was always present and always real. Del remembers, “One Friday, a salon down the street calls us. They knew we were open because everyone’s open. She said, ‘Hey, just letting you guys know, a shop nearby just got hit.” Del says that was the closest they came to being shut down. He jokes, “That was the first time I felt like a narco or something.”

Squints saw challenges in the form of loyal clients who didn’t take the pandemic seriously. He would receive calls from clients who wanted to be seen without an appointment or a mask. “Some of them came around, some of them, I don’t cut their hair anymore. That’s fine. The supportive ones are still there. They keep the lights on,” said Squints.

A booth at the speakeasy. Photo by Heriberto Rodriguez for L.A. TACO.

Safety and sanitization are taken seriously by Del and his team. Barbers receive a combined 80 hours of training related to health, sanitation, and anatomy to ensure a sanitized environment. Squints shared his frustration with the State for licensing barbers to sanitize, then not believing barbers can sanitize adequately to COVID standards. “We follow the guidelines we’re given. Appointment only, masks at all times, no exceptions, if you’re sick, don’t come. If you’re around someone that’s been sick, don’t come. We follow every guideline except shutting our doors. That isn’t an option,” added Del.

“Everyone keeps moving out; people who were born and raised here for generations are moving further out, to the High Desert, the I.E.”

While the decision to remain open while attempting to practice maximum safety may seem like a contradiction, Del and his team feel it was the only solution for being forced to shut the door on their only source of income without sufficient support. Del shared, “What is $1,200 gonna do for how long we were closed? That doesn’t pay a month’s rent.” The US Census estimated that between 2015 to 2019, the median cost of rent in California was $1503. 

Del grew up in Whittier, but he now lives in the Inland Empire with his newborn and her mother to save on rent. Del shares, “Everyone keeps moving out; people who were born and raised here for generations are moving further out, to the High Desert, the I.E.”

Squints outside his barber speakeasy. Photo by Heriberto Rodriguez for L.A. TACO.

It’s easy to want to imagine Del and his team as anti-shutdown WASP conservatives, or one of Q’s Anon’s, or anyone generally rallying against California’s liberal government and the rising cost of living. But the truth is that Del’s shop is a standard line-up of young Latino barbers, same as you find in most SoCal shops. And as far as politics, Del and Squints haven’t felt represented by any government in their lifetimes.

Del shares, “The left and the right, they’re not for the people. The government’s not for the people.” And as they remember the pandemic, Squints further shared, “Being a veteran, I follow the book. At the end of the day, it was the people that helped the people. I trust the community to be there for me before the government.”

“It's not even just about the cut; you gotta support the homies, you know? Risking it out there. It feels good to keep the chairs busy.”

Rob is a relatively new client, coming to the shop for the first time just before the pandemic. His dad is a veteran like Squints, and like Del, he’s never felt represented politically. Like Ricky, he stuck to his haircut routine through the pandemic the best he could but joked that at times he resorted to butchering his hair himself. He shared that getting a haircut was therapeutic. This was especially important to him as an employee at a UCLA COVID test site. I ask him how seriously he takes the pandemic, and he pleads with me, “It’s real, bro. I see it every day.” 

Rob tells me his job has made him extremely COVID safe. He rarely leaves home. The only exception is a haircut every two weeks. As for why, a lot comes to his mind at first, “It's not even just about the cut; you gotta support the homies, you know? Risking it out there. It feels good to keep the chairs busy.” He thinks about it some more, and in the end, he says it comes down to four simple words, “Look good, feel good.” Del nods on in agreement.

These days, spring brings businesses back to life, opening their doors as the pandemic appears to be thawing out. Even barbershops are reopening with masks and other safety measures. With never-ending community love, Del, Squints, and the boys were able to keep their doors open through the pandemic with the Backdoor Boogie, a fate not every shop shares. But not every barbershop has clients like these. 

And not every shop has Del at the helm.

L.A. TACO has withheld the last names in this story out of privacy concerns. 

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