Brush with fate

Robert Watson pulled himself up by the hair follicles — for real

Oct 26, 2011 at 12:00 am
Robert Watson with his brushes in his home barbershop.
Robert Watson with his brushes in his home barbershop.

There's not an empty chair inside the barbershop this afternoon. Whole families are here at the lively InZone Barber and Beauty Salon on Gratiot, just north of Eastern Market — men in the chairs, women under the hair dryers or at the nail tables, and children on the plush couches in the middle of the room, looking around and watching, listening. You can barely hear the classic funk and soul playing through the speakers because the noise from the conversations is so loud.

A Saturday at a big barbershop in Detroit like this one is more than just a quick stop for a haircut. It's a social event, a gathering of friends. Then a stranger, Robert Watson, steps in. 

The 32-year-old man carries a little cardboard box. He's making the rounds of black barbershops in the city to peddle, one by one, hairbrushes that he invented. It's the coldest of cold calls.

He approaches the chair closest to the front door. "Hey, brother," he says to a freshly shorn man. "We got the hottest thing on the streets. We're from Detroit, a local black manufacturer." This is his slogan all afternoon. Being a black business owner from the city still carries a lot of weight in Detroit.

What makes his brushes different is their curve, which lets more bristles touch the scalp at the same time. "They work better than the regular brush on brothers' hair," Watson explains. "A lot of black guys can't get the wave, get the ripples, because it takes so long to brush. But with this, in like a week or two, you're there."

At each station, the customer and barber take the brush, look it over, listen to the offer of a $15 brush for only $10 today, accept Watson's flier and promise to later check out his products online. During this short visit to the shop, two guys reach in their pockets and buy a brush.

"See, that's how it works," Watson says after walking out of the building. "You don't get everybody, but you get a few."

And so a long afternoon of street sales has begun. It's a job with full-circle significance. Watson did street sales years ago too. But back then he was selling drugs, fighting for sales turf, trying to burn down a rival's house.

"I ran the gamut of crime," Watson says. "I was for real. I wasn't out there playing."


Watson was a good kid with good grades who got into the University of Michigan to study finance, but he dropped out of school because he saw, like many kids growing up in the city, that you can earn more selling drugs now than chasing a career through college while waiting for a payoff later. It didn't take long for him to learn the ins and outs of Detroit's drug world: 

Like how almost all hired arsonists, the "pyro artists" as they're known, are women. "Maybe 'cause they're less prone to getting caught." 

How the guys at the top of the supply chain, the ones selling the keys of coke, are usually clean-cut nerds. "Because you have to be smart to do it."

And how amazing crack is when you first smoke it. "The first time I smoked crack, I tried to sell my TV. It's so addictive, but you feel like Superman, like bliss, like you can't stop smiling. So you chase that."

He had guns pointed at his face, served stints in the county jail, and searched for the right pyro artist to put someone else out of business. "I just knew how to make money, but it was like you're gonna have to take somebody out if you want to get ahead," he says. "I was like, what am I doing this for? Like, what's the end objective?"

After his partner wound up arrested and the coke supply dropped off and the weight of his escalating involvement got too intense, he broke down and checked into a drug treatment center, hoping to start over. He wasn't even 22 yet. 

He credits his faith for his second chance. "I cried out to the Lord, 'cause I was like, I don't believe in no white Jesus, but man, the devil had me in his clutches and I was going down fast," he remembers. "I was like, 'I need you to come and get me." 


Sweet Billy's Barbershop on Gratiot is an uninviting place. Its sign is down-home and hand-written. The building is old and small. And when Watson tries to pull the front door open, it's locked. 

A barber walks up and peers out at Watson and his cardboard box. "We're OK," the barber says gruffly without opening the door. "Do you know what we got?" Robert replies, eagerly. "You got them brushes. I seen them before," the man snaps back. And he walks away. No sale. No entry even. 

A dejected Watson walks down the block to Edward's Barbershop. Just as small. Just as locked. Like Sweet Billy's, this isn't a luxury spa like InZone, it's just a place for a quick haircut. In fact, the farther away from downtown Watson travels up Gratiot, the more barebones the barbershops get. At this one, weathered newspaper clippings are taped to the walls, and old sports photos from long-retired athletes fill the gaps between them. The place is old and musty. The barber opens the door and lets Watson in.

"I'm a black manufacturer from Detroit ..." Watson begins, pulling out his brush. The leery old barber, trimming a customer's hair, cuts to the point. "How much are they?" Watson announces today's $10 deal. "Ten dollars? With the way the economy is?" the barber shoots back, eyebrows arched in an expression that says, "Are you kidding?" A cheap brush usually cost about $3, he notes. "All you got to do is put it on somebody's head," Watson tells him, handing him one. 

The no-frills barber runs it across his customer's scalp. The customer winces. "You're tearin' the skin off my head!" he yells with a laugh. 

Watson grabs the brush and runs it along the customer's hair in a gentle sweep. "How's that feel?" Watson asks him. "Feel good, don't it?" The man nods and smiles.

No sale, though. "Well, check me out," Watson says, politely, and he steps back out to the street after handing fliers to the few here. Those fliers, he's discovered, are the real source of future business. "Once people get the flier, once they get the word about it, then that's cool." Watson says. "But don't nothin' come easy, that's for sure."


Dishes are stacked in the sink. A scorched pot sits on the stove. And in this small kitchen is a barbershop.

"I always cut hair, since I was 13 years old," Watson says, standing inside his old Midtown apartment, the kind with tight turns and small rooms. "My family has always been in it. My great grandmother had a beauty shop, my cousin cuts hair. I would go to barbershops and watch barbers cut."

Soon after he cleaned up his life, his grandmother offered him an old barber chair that was sitting in her basement. He hauled it home, put it by the kitchen window and started a home business.

He advertised this new hidden barbershop by pasting advertising stickers all over Midtown's light poles. "Robert the Barber" it read, giving no address, only a phone number. Slowly he built up a clientele, customers he hopes to bring with him someday soon to a real shop in a retail space.

Then one day the idea of that curved hairbrush came to him in a flash. "I always said there could be a better hairbrush for black males in particular," he says. He prayed, he says, and a voice told him to go for it. 

So he got a two-by-four, chiseled out a shape, sawed it down to size, drilled holes for bristles, pulled the bristles from other brushes with his soon-calloused fingers, and painstakingly glued them into his new prototype. He found a company to mass-produce them, and named his new business Crown Quality Products. Since then he's traveled the country in a minivan full of brushes, selling to barbershops in 14 states so far, and walking local streets like Gratiot, going from shop to shop, trying to build a future $10 at a time.

While he waits for the brushes to catch on, he cuts hair at his home shop. Jazz and old soul play on the living room stereo. Uplifting self-help slogans on the walls are granted importance by the frames around them. A hand-painted wood sign lists prices for everything from a simple haircut and a shave to eyebrow trimming. Another gives the price for the DVDs and mix CDs that he sells. And a placard written in different magic marker colors posts the simple shop rules: No profanity and no alcohol. 

Once people discovered it, the shop grew to be like other barbershops — a gathering place, a hangout where friends meet friends and fathers bring their kids. "Oh, we get serious debates in here, especially on a Friday night or a Saturday night," Watson says. "One interesting thing is I cut whites' hair, blacks', so that's when the best energy is, and so that's what I envision having a barbershop down here, having a shop like that, that's mixed. That starts the conversation, and shows the toddlers that we're all the same."


J-Rock stands bewildered on the sunny sidewalk, frantically dialing on his cellphone. He's a barber, mid-20s, gangly and agitated, and somehow he's locked out of his own shop, Luxury Kuts, on Gratiot near Conner. And into his baffled world comes Robert the Barber.

"My man's on his way," J-Rock announces to explain his haplessness. "Damn, I wish he was here right now. He's coming to open up the door."

As he waits for his man to come with a key, J-Rock takes a brush and rubs it his head, and it's like an epiphany. "These motherfuckers cold!" the stranded barber says, speaking not of temperature but of wonderfulness. "I like these motherfuckers. Oh, yeah, yeah! I like the curve."

"I want you to have one!" Watson says, matching his enthusiasm like a good salesman. He means buy one. But J-Rock is broke because his money is locked in the shop. 

This might seem another sigh-worthy moment in a long day of slow sales, but a guy like J-Rock might be immensely helpful in the future. Buzz can generate a lot of sales down the road, and someone as enthusiastic as he is about this brush could sell them fast. He too gets a flier. Another seed is planted.


Later that evening, when Watson's relaxing back at the home barbershop, his phone starts lighting up. "They're calling back already," he says. The fliers he gave out are already working. 

People buy his brushes for the same reason they get their hair cut in his kitchen— mostly because he's good at what he does, of course. But it's also because so many people have someone in their family like Watson — a kid gone bad or going nowhere. They're not just supporting the brush-selling barber. They're rooting for the redemption he represents. These simple brushes and this little barbershop, seemingly small things to some people, are to others proof you can turn your life around and make something of yourself, no matter how far you once fell.

"It gives hope around here," Watson says, gesturing outside the window, where his neighbors are hanging out on the street corner below. They're his customers and his admirers, the ones who look up to him now. "Hope, 'cause it shows you don't have to rely on someone else all the time. You can make your job. You can make your life."