For Patrice Alexander, cutting hair comes as easily and naturally to him as breathing.
The Toronto man, who owns The Forum Barber Parlour near Yonge and Finch in Toronto’s North York neighbourhood, has been a barber for nearly 30 years, picking up his first pair of shears at 12 years old, he told Global News one afternoon, laughing as though he couldn’t believe it himself.
Something else that comes naturally to Alexander, his clients say, is talking and listening — two skills longtime clients, Jonathon Jaundoo and Terry Tse, say Alexander has mastered.
“I come here for a therapeutic haircut,” 26-year-old Jaundoo told Global News.
A faithful client of Alexander’s for 10 years, Jaundoo says he looks forward to his biweekly visits for the haircut, yes, but even more so for the enriching experience and on-point advice he gets from Alexander.
“It’s just a moment for me to decompress, to self-care and, you know, talk to a friend,” Jaundoo said. “I felt like the person who was cutting me cared more for me, beyond the actual service.”
Jaundoo isn’t alone in his sentiments.
“You walk in and right away, you know this guy treats you like a friend,” 33-year-old Tse told Global News, referring to Alexander. “He doesn’t treat you like a client, he greets you, he asks how you’re doing…. It’s Patrice fostering an environment where there is no outsider.”
Tse, who has been coming to The Forum for eight years, is just one out of a vast, diverse client base Alexander has built up — from star athletes, like NHL players Nazem Kadri and Luke Gazdic, to faithful regulars who refuse to go anywhere else.
Inside his shop on any given day, Alexander can often be found ‘chopping it up’ with his clients, whether it be discussing the latest Raptors game or dishing out an encouraging word here and there.
And though he’s no ‘real’ therapist, to many of his clients, he feels that way, they say. Alexander has a knack for making them look and feel good — like they matter.
Canadian professional hockey defenceman Jordan Subban told Global News so during a Zoom interview one afternoon.
“Patrice makes me look the best,” Subban joked when asked why he doesn’t go to any other barber. For Subban, his hockey star big brother, P.K., and their entire family, it’s more than Alexander’s sharp cutting skills that has kept them coming back for the past 10 years.
“I go there early just so I could sit down and talk (to Alexander) and we could have some real conversations,” said Subban.
“It’s just an environment that he creates that’s inclusive for everybody to be a part of that conversation in a way and not feel dumb, you know? It’s cool to ask questions and it’s about growth.”
Some of Alexander’s clients say that inclusivity can be rare in these types of spaces — so rare that some do a double-take when they see Alexander’s Black-owned barbershop in the middle of Toronto’s Koreatown North.
Tse, who is Chinese, says he was one of those, struck by how atypical Alexander’s barbershop was.
“Right off the bat, as soon as you walk in, you see hockey sticks, right? That’s not usual,” said Tse. “It’s (also) in an area that you may not typically see a barbershop, so right off the bat, it’s different.”
Alexander himself was also getting calls from interested clients, unsure of what ‘kind’ of barbershop he ran.
‘They’re like, ‘Hi, how are you? Is this The Forum? Do you guys cut Black hair? And they’re kind of nervous to say it,” said Alexander, chuckling.
“Clients (would) start coming in … call and make an appointment, come by (and say), ‘Oh wow, this guy knows how to cut straight hair!’ And that’s always been the stereotype, you know, that Black barbers aren’t really familiar with straight hair.”
But those are the stereotypes, preconceived notions and ‘boxes’ Alexander seeks to challenge at The Forum Barber Parlour, a place he ensures lives up to its name where a wide range of topics can be discussed — in a respectful way.
Tse says he appreciates the safe environment, feeling comfortable enough to discuss real estate and business to heavier topics, such as race relations and police brutality, with Alexander.
“If I have a question, I feel comfortable coming to Patrice because he’s not someone that would be offended by my questions, right? He can have a candid conversation with me to help me learn,” said Tse.
Tse says it’s not only conversations with Alexander, but also with other clients of different backgrounds who come into the shop that further enhances the hair-cutting experience.
“Coming in here, you realize just how much we have in common, right? We really like the same things, but (may) not know it because we haven’t had the chance to talk,” Tse told Global News. “So having that opportunity to have a conversation with someone that you may not have a conversation with on the street, it changes your perspective. It opens your mind up to something a little bit more than what you would get if you weren’t here.
“I walk out of here, I feel like a better person because I can be more empathetic.”
For Alexander, that is the value-add: building bridges across differences with the hopes of fostering understanding. And he says it starts with listening.
“Business is all about relationships, that’s how you grow,” said Alexander. “I tell a lot of my clients all the time that I appreciate them probably more than they appreciate me, because every single person who sits in my chair, I am learning from them.”
“To say that he mentors, it’s, yes, I can talk to him,” Tse said of Alexander. “But I’m also seeing what he’s doing and that pushes me to do more…. He’s not just talking about it, he’s showing it to you. It’s very tangible. And I think it’s something that resonates with not only myself, but with young Black males, with people that come into the shop and see what he’s doing and know that you don’t have to be an athlete, a musician or anything to be successful. You can hone your craft, perfect it and then expand.”
For Jaundoo, 10 years’ worth of conversations with Alexander, who has mentored him on “everything from relationships to personal problems to business matters,” has made Alexander not only a trusted confidant, but also an accessible representation of what’s possible.
“(Alexander) holds himself to a high standard and that’s what I want for myself.”
Subban says it’s Alexander creating a space that allows young men to be vulnerable, to feel seen, that is the difference-maker for him.
“It opens your eyes to show you that there are people that care about what you say and what you’re going through. And you know, Patrice has always, always had that environment in the shop.”
—with files from Gord Edick