Not long after walking through the wood-and-glass doors of the Beard Culture Barbershop & Gallery, I heard peals of laughter from Ausharra Knox's waiting clientele, while the man himself was focused intently on finishing his customer's cut and shave.
"He's already a superstar!" one gentleman heckled, as I readied my questions for Knox. The friendly jeers seemed par for the course, and I got the sense this was a necessary aspect of day-to-day operations at Knox's business, one he couldn't do without.
Knox, steady and unfazed, was happy to fill me in on how Beard Culture was doing, and a bit about how his life's journey has led him here.
"Growing up in Champaign-Urbana, my uncle was a barber at Rose & Taylor, which for a long time was the longest Black-owned business in the area, so I had the opportunity to frequent the establishment. It was vital to the community, and as a young man, I got to sit back and observe how the older gentlemen conducted themselves. I've always had a want to open a barbershop, not always necessarily with myself as a barber. As a young man, I did cut hair, but spent most of my time playing basketball; I didn't take the barber aspect seriously and didn't know the possibilities. Fast forward, after concluding my education, got to the point where I wanted to create something that could be vital to the community. I had my visions of what that looked like, and around 2018 started the Beard Culture Apparel & Products brand."
It was impressive to watch Knox work, alternating deftly between straight razors and trimmers, administrating his trade with care and precision, all while quietly speaking to me about the aspirations of his business.
"My goal is, in terms of the apparel and products, to become global. If they hit up the shop, we have tees, snapbacks, trucker hats, and beard butter (hair/beard/skincare cream) the last of which I make myself. From an apparel and product standpoint, I want this to go as far as it can go."
Photo by Andy Long.
Knox’s shop is immediately recognizable if you’ve watched any of the “I Cut My Way Out” video podcasts on YouTube. Along with longtime friend Kenneth Jenks, they bring together barbers from all across the country to speak candidly about their businesses, hopes and dreams, fears and concerns, ultimately empowering their fellowship across a growing network of barbers, stylists, and beauticians.
"The podcast has a wide connection,” says Knox. “We've had the barbers for Chance the Rapper, Nas, Grant Hill, Jalen Rose, Penny Hardaway, Chris Styles, Moneybagg Yo, and Yo Gotti. Some serious heavyweights. We've had some great female barbers on, too. Natasha Conner is a barber out of Milwaukee and was one of the only female barbers in the NBA's COVID-19 bubble. They've got their dreams and their visions, and we want to share that on our podcast."
Historically, the barbershop has been a pillar of Black culture, often serving as a gathering place with a familial atmosphere. That said, Knox is quick to point out that his vision for Beard Culture is not limited to any one community.
“Beards themselves have become a very global symbol. The culture of beards transcends race and religion and has become a fraternity of sorts. I take special pride in beards. It's become an expertise and a trademark.”
Knox similarly recognizes talent across genders for what they can bring to the shop. Beard Culture recently brought in Niesha, a confident and accomplished stylist who specializes in natural hair and braids, adding new flavor to the establishment.
Beard Culture is onto something special, and it is among a growing number of Black-owned businesses in Champaign-Urbana.
"I definitely think Black-owned businesses are growing here,” Knox said as he beckoned forth his next client, gesturing in front of him toward his chair. “We’re trying to support each other. It's going in the right direction."
© Jessie Knox, The Navigator. Photo by Andy Long.
While the service and comforts of Beard Culture are objectively fantastic, a far more subjective and stimulating experience lines the walls of the barbershop: Numerous pieces of artwork, most of which is Afrocentric and thought-provoking.
"Most of the art — about 98% — is my father Jessie's work. Some of it is from Alonzo Umbasi Mitchell, a close family friend. My father being an artist, and loving art all my life, their work adds culture and a theme to the shop. I want to provide something to the community that's a little more cultural that you may not see every day."
If you’d like to schedule a cut, shave, or styling, you can call Beard Culture Barbershop & Gallery at (217) 607-1821, or visit the shop inside the Lincoln Square Mall. It’s a straight shot down the hall from the South Broadway doors.
Score apparel and beard supplies at https://www.beardcultureapparel.com.