It is a brisk fall day in 2017. Charleston Collins Sr. is with a customer. Bespectacled and dressed in a black jacket, he snips, chops and combs with a purpose, as if his life depends on it. Family photos line the walls of the 50-year-old barbershop, and a family chatters about the latest happenings in the neighborhood while waiting for their turn. Signs on the walls reflect the culture of the place, like "Absolutely no foul language" and "Keep your pants pulled up.” Fluorescent light bounces off the smooth, black leather chairs as well as the barber's intense furrowed brow. The door opens. He relaxes his brow and looks up.
"How are you doing, young lady?" he softly greeted me. The master barber — Mr. Charleston as I call him — is unaware of my mission to document his life’s work over the next 12 months.
In 1970, Carlton Collins Jr., Mr. Charleston's father, opened the first Collin’s Barber Shop on Fayette Street in Syracuse, New York. In 1983, Collins Jr. and his wife, Juanita Collins, purchased a house at the corner of South Crouse Avenue and Fayette Street. Soon after, Juanita started running a beauty shop upstairs, so the barbershop was renamed Collin's Barber & Beauty Shop. Mr. Charleston, their youngest son, began working at the shop and learning the family business at the age of 24, after working in Allwash of Syracuse, Inc. for two years, which is a company removing hazardous waste.
When Carlton passed away in 2014, Mr. Charleston continued to maintain the safe and respectful space his father and mother worked so hard to nurture. In fact, it is his emphasis on relationships and attention to detail that has earned him a loyal core of longtime customers.
But Mr. Charleston's connection to his community reaches far beyond the walls of the barbershop because he genuinely cares about people, especially about the next generation. He serves as a deacon at Central Baptist Church and teaches in its children’s ministry. He supports local youth as a volunteer coach at Inner City Little League, a position he's held for 22 years. He gives complimentary haircuts to people in need at shelters, churches, and other nonprofit organizations. Mr.Charleston is a mentor, a father figure, and a good friend.
The time of quarantine brings me back to Syracuse, New York. Juanita Collins, the matriarch of Collin’s Barber & Beauty Shop and someone who I called grandma, peacefully passed away in May 2020. She was survived by four siblings, three sons, 16 grandchildren, 18 great-grandchildren, and two great-great-grandchildren.