A barbershop, in its most basic form, is the place we go to get groomed — a shave and a trim, or a new style if you’re feeling spicy.
However, in the black community, the formula for a great barbershop experience is never that simple. A good shop has to be a place you’ll feel comfortable going to regularly, where you won’t mind spending a few more hours than you originally expected. Then, of course, there are the barbers — the purveyors of presentation, the gatekeepers of good grooming, or, as barber Simeon Dill calls them, “an extension of your hygiene.”
Born and raised in Englewood, Dill has felt at home in barbershops since the seventh grade. Back then, he was a lowly shop boy tasked with sweeping the floors and taking out the trash, discreetly getting behind a set of clippers now and then to cut hair after hours. Now 32, Dill co-owns O.A.S.I.S. (Over-Achieving Since I Started), a barbershop in Pilsen, and has cut celebrities like Derrick Rose, the Jonas Brothers, and G Herbo.
But it’s with the conversation series Shop Talk that Dill is discovering just how far that extension of hygiene can reach. Since 2014, Shop Talk has brought attendees to O.A.S.I.S. every other Monday for intimate, open group discussions — in essence, replacing a therapist’s chaise with a barber’s chair. Topics range from timely social issues like the #MeToo movement to existential questions (e.g. “What does being a man mean to you?”).
Typically, Dill shares a topic on social media before each session to gauge interest and start the conversation early.
“The goal is to undress this idea,” he says. “I hear things that guys talk about in the shop throughout the week and I try to bundle them up into a workable topic or question. I want people to be comfortable participating authentically — you’re not just answering the question, you’re contributing to the conversation.”
A natural conversationalist, Dill says the idea for Shop Talk was inspired by his regular interactions with clients. However, there was one regular in particular who drove Dill to formally organize a conversation event.
“This person would come to the shop even when he wasn’t getting a cut, just to hang out,” Dill says. “This was someone who I admire telling me that the conversations we were having, he couldn’t even have with some of his closest friends.”
When I arrived at O.A.S.I.S. for a recent Shop Talk, I was led through an unassuming black gate and up a flight of stairs by shop regulars. The establishment immediately separates itself from the run-of-the-mill barbershop in subtle ways: There’s no bright neon signage for this shop, nor a large custom poster board covering the floor-to-ceiling, street-facing window. Instead of sitting level with the sidewalk — where the street can become an extension of the barbershop, an extra waiting area, and a beacon to hustlers selling batteries, DVDs, and lunch plates — O.A.S.I.S. is perched on the second floor, above an event space. In a traditional setup, it’s not unusual for barbers to sit outside the shop and hand out cards to folks whose hairlines look to be in dire need. But at O.A.S.I.S., all that isn’t necessary. Here, all the action is happening on the inside.
The room was set up with barber’s chairs, folding seats, benches, and couches in a circle. (By the end of the conversation, the room had filled so much that even the window sill became a viable seating area.). The closest the evening got to a typical barbershop conversation was when those of us who showed up on time engaged in warm-up conversation about popular TV shows like Netflix’s Rhythm + Flow and Starz’s Power.
Once the session got going, Simeon introduced the evening’s theme: “Practices and beliefs that you were raised with but no longer participate in.” This kicked off a free-wheeling conversation that wove through topics like behavior in personal relationships, religious beliefs, political values, and more. Each shift invited new questions, new stories, new jokes, and new opinions, many of which were deeply personal. Remarkably, in a room of over twenty participants, not a single voice went unheard.
When disagreements did arise — like one over whether it’s acceptable to decline phone calls from your parents — attendees introduced probing questions rather than heated disputes. That night, the abrasive, sometimes toxic discourse volleyed on social media and debate talk shows was nowhere to be found. After all, that isn’t Shop Talk.
“We can’t call it therapy, technically, but it’s definitely therapeutic,” says singer-songwriter and producer Justin Famous, a shop regular who introduced the early discussion about Rhythm + Flow. Famous was hosting his own faith-based conversation series when his wife introduced him to O.A.S.I.S.
“It just started off with [me and Simeon] having those natural conversations between barber and client,” he says. “Then it grew to a point where our conversations were much more than surface level. That’s when he invited me to Shop Talk.”
Famous’s conversation series at his church home on the West Side examined current events and trending topics through a Christian lens. When time constraints forced him to discontinue it, Famous found a spot as something of a co-moderator with Simeon at Shop Talk.
“There may be times when the conversation might need a little bit of stimulation, a question or something to keep it going. [Other] times, when he just might be running late grabbing food, that’s where I come in,” he says.
Of the two Shop Talks hosted each month, one is restricted to male attendees in an effort to facilitate conversations that are often difficult for men to have themselves.
“We have to be able to make sense of these things amongst each other, then we can take it home and get the perspectives of our girls, wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters to round out our views,” Dill says. “There’s only so much guys can discuss without having the perspective of women.”
For any of Shop Talk’s intended goals to be accomplished, Dill believes it has to be a safe space. Otherwise, social conditioning can corrupt honest conversation.
“We need to be able to admit what we don’t know, and we always give each other room to [self-]correct. One of the things I had to focus on is making sure guys acknowledge and respect the presence of women in what is typically a male-dominated space,” Dill says.
Since its inception, Shop Talk has grown beyond the level of local phenomenon. It has even traveled across the pond to the U.K., where Dill hosted a Shop Talk on cultural convergence at a guitar shop in London. But Dill is most moved by the personal growth he’s seen Shop Talk inspire.
“I’m trying to be the best person that I can be, so I appreciate hearing all the thoughtful perspectives that I can,” he says. “I want to learn from your mistakes and experiences, and let you learn from mine. If nothing else, we can use this as a way to get things off our chest.”
Walking into Shop Talk on a Monday night and seeing a table spread with food on one side and a full drum kit on the other, it’s easy to mistake O.A.S.I.S. for something much bigger than a barbershop. But in some ways, that’s exactly Shop Talk’s philosophy: Barbershops are always much, much more than just the place we go to get a haircut.
“This place is the sum of what we all bring to it,” Dill says. “Our offering is an environment for people to feel comfortable to talk and normalize thoughtful conversations.”