If walls could talk, the oldest continuously operated black-owned barbershop in Oregon would have many stories to tell.
So does Kim Brown, granddaughter of founders Benjamin and Mary Rose Dean, who grew up in Dean’s Beauty Salon and Barber Shop. She is third generation owner, stylist and manager.
The small business is not just a place where men and women get a style, cut or shave. It is a community unto itself. You could say it has a soul.
Stories, recommendations and opportunities are shared — for a great babysitter, financial resources, or a job. Sharing is part of the Dean’s community dynamic. As is a 98-year-old offering sage advice, or a five-year-old finding a playmate. This is an all-ages community.
Here, a teen or pre-teen might help by calling a cab for someone (sometimes earning a tip). A client short a few bucks might find a helping hand. Here, black folks run into people they’ve known but not seen in years.
Scanning the barbershop, you’ll see young men waiting for haircuts seen lately on Trailblazers.
On one visit a man in his 80s recalled as a young man walking 20 blocks early in the morning to avoid the line to get in.
“My grandmother never realized she was operating a community space,” says Brown.
Her grandparents came to Portland from Birmingham, Alabama because of the shipyards during World War II. Her grandmother was already a licensed beautician. In 1949 she and her husband bought a home and started the barbershop and salon in their basement. She wanted her own place, so in 1954 they opened the shop two houses away, on NE Hancock, where it has been ever since.
Grandmother, according to Brown, was a woman with a commanding personality who created a business focused on African Americans when that was not commonplace.
Dean got his barber license and styled hair, straightening with hot combs and curling with an iron to create the marcel wave, the most popular style at the time. Catering to doctors, lawyers and maids, [Dean’s] “ran the gamut.”
“My grandmother was the most amazing woman in my entire life. In those years there was no possibility of a business that catered to African Americans in the Eliot neighborhood.” Brown says her grandmother “created a legacy for us. Men and women were drawn to her. She knew something about everything and raised four children, three of whom are still living.”
When her grandmother died in 1979, Brown’s mother Gloria Tims became owner, manager and stylist. After operating the business for 50 years, she is now retired, living with Brown, and dealing with Alzheimer’s.
While Brown describes her mother as a gentler personality, her grandmother, she says, was “my way or the highway but not in a mean way. She was the boss and we all listened. She gave good advice, whether it was about church, relationships, cooking or any other topic, but she did so with grace.”
“When I didn’t want to go to Sunday school, I found myself there and liking it. She has a way of making things happen.
“I remember when she told me that it was time to go to beauty school. Instead, I married. I left for seven years and traveled with my husband who was in the military to other cities and to Italy. In the end, what I thought I would never do, I now absolutely love to do. I am glad I didn’t go to work there right after high school because I didn’t feel trapped. I interact with people all day and most of my clients I’ve known for 30 years. I know their children, their babies, their divorces, and about their remarriages.”
Turning 60 last September, Brown has been working at Dean’s for 35 years.
In 2018, Oregon Black Pioneers honored Dean’s as the oldest African American owned business in the State of Oregon.
Brown said one of her clients would soon be 98. That client remembers Brown as a child running around the salon. Brown feels fortunate that she grew up in her culture, attending the 100 percent black Immaculate Heart Catholic School, her African American Morning Star Baptist Church, and growing up in the salon. It was only when she attended and graduated from Grant High School that she was surrounded by her culture.
“I had a wonderful growing up because of it, despite Oregon being a predominantly white state,” said Brown. “My life has been different in that respect than most black people. I have been surrounded by black people.”
Brown says it was when her mother visited her in Italy and seemed burned out that she knew she needed to help and moved back to Portland.
Today Brown has three stylists working with her at Dean’s. Her two grown sons have successful careers — son Adrian heads up Nike’s Converse division in Boston; Aaron is a security specialist with Bonneville Power. Neither wants to inherit the business
However, she intends to continue the legacy and has asked her sons to never close the shop but to see to it that good, competent people run it. There is a nine-month-old grandson Brian, though, so you never know!