Whats next for Boikes?

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January 3, 2011
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// After more than five decades in the hair biz, Art Boike has retired. Now his 83-year-old barbershop faces an uncertain future. //

For all the white-haired old timers populating Art Boike’s customer wall of fame, the guy in the barber’s chair today is barely out of his 20s. And he’s Moroccan.

Younes El idrissi, a Northeast resident who grew up in Casablanca, has been getting his hair cut at Boike Barber, 1308 2nd Ave. NE, for about a year now. He says he digs the authentic, old-fashioned vibe — the straight razors and whisks, the behemoth antique cash register, the aged Polish flag framed and leaning against the rear wall. For Younes, it’s a historical fantasy brought to life, a Norman Rockwell scene packed into a 500-square-foot storefront. The only thing that’s missing is a quartet.

“When you come in here, it’s like a moment’s release from the present,” says Younes. “You’re not living in 2010.”

Boike, 73, has been cutting hair in the building since 1958, the year his father Roman took over the location after co-owning another barbershop six blocks away. Roman and Art worked side-by-side for 14 years, before Art ultimately bought the business from his dad in 1974.

But the shop itself dates back to the late 1920s, when it was first opened as Peter Hnath Barbershop. A photo of one of Hnath’s most famous clients, Walt Hobot, Minnesota’s 1928 State Collegiate Boxing Champion, still adorns the wall.

Recently, though, it’s been mostly young guys coming into Boike’s — and not all of them resemble the Polish descendants Boike mostly catered to in the past.

“[Northeast] went from about five dominant nationalities to where it’s completely mixed,” says Boike. In the last five years, he’s watched art galleries and restaurants move onto 13th Avenue, seen the street get written up in the New York Times last spring for its bohemian resurgence. It’s an evolution that Boike says is “refreshing.”

But the influx of young customer isn’t just about shifting neighborhood demographics. It’s part of a marketing strategy — and it’s a subplot to a small real estate drama that has rumors bubbling at the corner of 13th Avenue and 2nd Street NE.

In with the 
new — whatever that may be

Art retired on Dec. 21.

Kelly Sharp, Boike’s 48-year-old apprentice, who just graduated from Moler Barber School, at Lowry and Central Avenues, last spring, has bought the business and is planning to keep the old-fashioned barbershop going into 2011.

A former Realtor in the Stillwater and St. Croix area (she now lives in Northeast, 11 blocks away from Boike’s), Sharp knows how to make a sale. And she’s been recruiting young customers to replace Boike’s aging clientele. She claims that in the last eight weeks of 2010, she had 48 new customers coming through the shop.

A self-described “preservationist with a green flair,” Sharp talks passionately about the barbershop as an endangered cultural treasure. It’s what made her approach Boike about the apprenticeship in the first place.

“This is the thrust of my story,” she says. “That has been a barbershop since the 1920s. The salon next to me — that’s been a salon for over a hundred years […] I knew immediately when I walked in there that this is where I wanted to work.”

“She’s been bringing in a lot of young guys,” Boike confirmed. “I think they like the old-time barbershops better than the chains. There’s more of a personal service.  I think it will just get better [for her].”

That is, if Sharp can manage to stick around.

Her building — also home to Matchbox coffee co-op and the women’s salon Becky’s Hair on 2nd, itself a century-old fixture on the block — is currently up for sale, listed by Lander Group, the managing partner, in December. Since leases in the building have always been month-to-month, neither Sharp nor her neighbors have a guarantee they’ll be able to stay once the building sells.

According to Sharp, Lander Group approached her in late summer, before the site was listed, about possibly buying the building herself. Sharp was thrilled at the prospect.

“But what threw me out of the water was the taxes on the property,” she said. The taxes alone would be $700 per month, she calculated, meaning she would have to raise all rents in the building, including her own, by about a third, “just to make the numbers work.”

Escalating real estate taxes may also be a factor in Lander Group’s decision to sell.

“I’m 100 percent full at that property there on the corner, and my real estate taxes are one third of my income,” said President Michael Lander. “It’s driving out small businesses. The hardest hit people are the people like my tenants in that building there.”

Since Lander bought the building in 2005, tenants say they have enjoyed unusually low rents and a relaxed, low-commitment lease. Boike says it’s the first formal lease he ever signed. Before Lander, he says he occupied the building on a simple “gentleman’s agreement” with the previous owners, the Polish White Eagle Association.

Sharp finally passed on the purchase. Lander listed the building for sale, with an original asking price of just under $200,000.

That’s when the rumors began.

To buy or not to buy

Depending on whom you ask, everyone from local boutique chain Patina to Urban Outfitters has expressed interest in the corner, where space in the Spinario building is also available for lease. But Becky Deming, owner of Becky’s Hair on 2nd, says only one party has come to look at the property. And she would know. Since she’s the only tenant with access to the basement, any potential buyer wishing to inspect the building has to come through her shop.

“The only people I’ve seen is a group that has a coffee shop and bakery,” she said.

Fearing that a new owner might want to combine all three storefronts into one larger business, Sharp, who had just put money down on her new barbershop, began to panic.

On Dec. 2, she dashed off an impassioned e-mail to Northeast neighbors and business owners, announcing that she would once again attempt to buy the building. She met with the owners of Matchbox, who were unaware that the building had even been listed for sale. They were also nervous that a new bakery and café might push them out of their home of seven years.

“Matchbox was never told about any of this stuff until we found out that someone had come in for a third time to look at the building,” said co-owner Liz Draper. “We were completely out of the loop.”

So the two businesses teamed up. In a phone interview days later, Sharp announced, “Myself and the coffee shop are collaborating and going to try to purchase the building. We are feverishly working to get a business plan done.”

But by mid-month, the urgency seemed to wane. By Dec. 15, Sharp said she was only about 75 percent committed to the purchase, noting that she would still need to raise between $50,000 and $75,000. Deferred maintenance may also be an issue, as neighbors have commented on wear and tear in the building.

“We, after sitting down together, don’t want to make a knee-jerk reaction based on something that may or may not happen,” she said.

At press time, the fate of the building was still unclear.

“If they [Sharp and the Matchbox owners] were able and interested in buying, that would be great,” said Lander. “That would be fantastic. However, it is available to the open market, and so if someone else shows up that’s interested in buying it, I will talk to them.”

“I can’t believe it hasn’t sold yet,” said Adam Rosen, owner of nearby Shuga Records, which also occupies a building owned by Lander Group. “The building needs a lot of work, that’s why it’s so cheap. But for $200,000 you can get a storefront on a street that was just featured in the New York Times.”

Regardless of who emerges as an owner, the uncertainty has caused tenants to rethink the benefits of their month-to-month arrangements.

Asked if Matchbox would be willing to make a more long-term commitment, Draper said, “We’d love to. Even if it means raising the rent. We just don’t want to leave.”

Deming, too, wouldn’t mind a more secure lease. But she doesn’t want any part of the real estate maneuverings. Boike’s curtain call has her fantasizing about a new life stage for herself.

“I’m 60,” she says. “I don’t want to buy a building. I want to retire. Kelly’s at the starting gate. I’m close to the finishing gate."