Like many other young men in Compton, Donald Conley had obstacles set before him as an adolescent. His father was incarcerated when he was a toddler and his single mother, Paulette, did the best she could raising her son. Around thirteen years of age and after one too many bad home haircuts from mom, Conley picked up some clippers and cut his own hair. He learned how to cut hair for money, alas also during this time, he also learned how to sell drugs.
In 1998 after a deal gone wrong, his mother worried about her impressionable son and bought him a one way ticket to Oakland.
“My mom told me, ‘Son, I’ve given you all the tools I can, but I can’t help you become a man. Come home when you get your life together,’” recalls Conley. “But the truth is, I never wanted to go home.”
He made an agreement with his parents that since he wasn’t going to college, he’d join the military. True to his word, Conley joined the Navy and served on the USS Independence aircraft carrier as a plane captain for F-14s. After a close call with a fighter jet, he was relocated below deck in administration. When he was based in Atsugi, Japan, he decided to pick up his clippers and start cutting his own hair as well as his shipmates.
A Barber Is Born
After his stint in the Navy, Conley returned stateside to California and entered the corporate world with a 9 to 5 office job. Conley laughs and says, “That lasted about a year and within 18 months, I was enrolled in barber school. However, I was escorted out of my first barbering school by the police because of my temper and bad attitude. Thankfully, a second school was willing to take me and I made the most out of my second chance.”
A licensed barber for more than 21 years, Conley first settled in the Bay Area, had a family, owned a shop with his spouse and taught barbering at Federico Beauty Institute in Sacramento. He says, “I was fully vested in the Bay Area, until about 2013. I was notified that my 63 year old mom who retired from the post office, was showing early stages of dementia. Maybe I wasn’t ready to go home, but I had to go home to take care of mom.”
Moving back to Compton, Conley discovered that his strong willed, able-bodied mother was progressing from dementia to Alzheimers. “It was tough going from a shop owner and educator to being a caretaker 24/7,” says Conley. “I felt so disconnected from barbering. I missed what I loved doing.” To find some solace, keep up his craft and still be there for mom, Conley transformed his garage into a studio barbershop. “My mom had been a Compton community activist since the early 1970s. I followed her lead and I asked community leaders if they could use the services of a barber.” Soon Conley was providing free haircuts to the homeless, veterans and people in need in the community. He admits, “I was a little embarrassed to tell people I was working from my garage, but I had some people believing in me and what I was doing.”
Barberizm the Shoppe
In 2018, a space in downtown Compton became available for Barberizm The Shoppe. Conley’s mission for the Shoppe is to provide the city of Compton with high-end full service barbering experience along with shoe shining and apparel. The atmosphere is family-friendly with a focus on respect, professionalism, community and networking. The Shoppe has also hosted neighborhood breakfasts and wellness clinics.
He says, “I want people to feel comfortable here. I want the kids to see that life will put challenges in front of you, but it’s how you respond to those challenges.”
The year prior to opening his barbershop, Conley had the opportunity to groom Snoop Dogg when the rapper was recording his 16th studio album, Bible of Love. The album was a collaboration with some of gospels’ biggest voices so Snoop’s evangelist mother could finally listen to her son’s music. Conley says, “Actually, our very first meeting was years back when I was in Japan at his concert, we almost got in a fight. This time around, we had better heads and we got along well.”
The two West Coast OGs also bonded with their shared grief. Conley’s mother passed away on February 11, 2020, bringing his six years as a round the clock caretaker to an end. In addition to cutting Snoop’s hair, Conley also took care of Snoop’s mother, Beverly Green-Broadus’s, coif. In October of 2021, Snoop’s mother passed away. Devastated, Snoop asked Conley how it felt to grieve.
Conley shares, “Being a barber, I’m fortunate to have great relationships. Sometimes you talk, sometimes you just need to listen and be there as a fellow human being.”
An Author Is Born
Aside from being the owner of Barberism the Shoppe, family man, educator for Andis and celebrity barber, Conley is also an author. He penned two children's books to help encourage youths.
My Dad Is Just a Barber follows the journey of Donnie as he learns how to navigate through his feelings and dealing with low self-esteem and self-doubt. His father is the local barber who provides life wisdom along with impeccable grooming. The story enforces the role of barbers and barbershops to a community.
The Bullheaded Bully sees the transition of fourth grader Billy, who has troubling and bullying behaviors. With the guidance and empathy from his teacher and classmates, Billy grows into a kind and well-liked young man. The story provides helpfuls skills and tools to handle similar situations.
His barbering skills will take Conley to Super Bowl 56, when Snoop Dogg is slated to be in the half time show at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles February 13, 2022.
Photos courtesy of Donald Conley
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