Barber Mike Aldrich says he was trying to avoid embarrassment — and a lousy haircut — when he balked at trimming the hair of Dr. Darryl Fisher. He says he's just no good at cutting black people's hair.
Fisher, who's black, believes there was something race-related about the way Aldrich, who's white, turned him away when he ducked into Mike's Barber Shop asking for a trim one day last month.
What happened next triggered hard feelings on both sides, a demonstration by locals unhappy with the barber and a new example of an old problem — white barbers and hairdressers struggling to cope with black customers' hair, which generally is thicker and curlier than white people's hair.
"It's a major, major problem," said Willie Morrow, an author of books about barbering black people's hair.
The story begins Oct. 5, when Fisher, a physician from Taos, N.M., was visiting Bellows Falls, a village of about 3,500 residents along the Connecticut River, and walked up the steps into Aldrich's storefront barber shop.
Aldrich was playing cards with a friend, and Fisher asked if the barber was in. Aldrich said no, and Fisher went on his way. Later, walking past, Fisher saw through the front window that the man who'd told him the barber was out was cutting the hair of a white customer.
Fisher, 57, didn't go in. When he returned home, though, he sent a letter to the editor of the Brattleboro Reformer newspaper, recounting what had happened and saying he wouldn't want to work or live in Bellows Falls if that's the way businesses treat people.
"The way he looked at me — and this is just my opinion — and the way he just said, 'No,' when I asked if the barber was there and wouldn't tell me when the barber was coming in, and then 15 minutes later he's cutting somebody else's hair. Through my experience with racism, I thought it was racially motivated," Fisher said Monday in a telephone interview.
Aldrich, a one-man shop who sometimes plays host to impromptu cribbage games between regulars at a table near the front window, has been cutting hair for 40 years.
Interim town manager Francis Walsh describes Aldrich as "the kind of guy if you went in there and you asked for a haircut and he was playing cards, he'd tell you to leave."
Aldrich says that he gets only about one black customer a year at his shop in Bellows Falls, which lies on the Vermont-New Hampshire border and is 97 percent white. He tells them up front that he struggles with cutting their hair.
"I'm sorry," he said he tells them. "You can sit in the chair if you want, but I've tried cutting it, and I have problems. Whether I don't have the right equipment, I don't know."
He says it was wrong to lie to Fisher but he did it because he didn't want to cut his hair.
As unhappy as Fisher was with the treatment, he was impressed when he heard about Saturday's demonstration, in which about two dozen people — at least one carrying a sign that said "Hate has no home here" — staged a sidewalk protest. Their message: Bellows Falls and the Vermont region aren't racist.
"One jerk is not going to ruin everything," Fisher said. "The number of people who've protested him, that's a very good sign. I'm impressed. It's made me feel super welcome. I'll be back in Bellows Falls in December and won't be so nervous walking up and down the street."
Morrow, an expert on black hair and product developer who has written textbooks about its treatment, says others have the same problem Aldrich does.
"He's telling the truth. He literally cannot (cut black hair)," said Morrow, who's black. "The doctor would've been very upset at the haircut he would've gotten."