Klondike Smokey City

The Barber School brings needed job skills to North Memphis

Now in its 17th year, the Barber School in the Klondike neighborhood is a federally accredited school with an average enrollment of 125 students. 

Torrus Brooks didn’t set out to be a provider of job skills to North Memphis.

Brooks, who began his career as a barber, became an engineer and then returned to barbering. He eventually opened a barber school at 1309 Jackson Avenue on the southern edge of the Klondike community. He is unfazed by the most frequently asked question of his career.

“Everyone wanted to know why I would walk away from my job as an engineer,” he said. “I took a pay cut to be an engineer. I was making $50,000 a year as a barber, and I was only working from 1 to 8 p.m. I was making $1,000 a week, cash money.”

But cash money aside, Brooks saw a bigger picture. That is why in 2000 he developed and founded the Memphis Institute of Barbering Inc. which is known as the Barber School. It was a way for Brooks to give back to the community by offering a trade and a better life to the young men and women he encountered in North Memphis.

Quan Smith practices blowouts on a dummy head at The Barber School on Jackson Avenue in Klondike.

“When I opened up my first barber shop, Magic Clippers, I found myself training all new barbers because they weren’t up to my standards,” Brooks said. “I told them if I’m gonna spend all of this time training you guys, I might as well open a barber school.”

The Barber School he founded continues to thrive with students numbering nearly 1,000 since it opened in 2000. Many of those graduates work at the school, have shops of their own or work as self-employed barbers. Brooks expanded and opened a school on Winchester Road in 2014 and a third location in Jackson, Tennessee in 2012.

“For me personally, this is a community that I have a personal relationship,” he said. “I go to church within this area, and I’ve watched it change.”

The landscape that surrounds the buildings Brooks owns for the Klondike campus and offices is a mixture of abandoned buildings, land that had been cleared or homes in need of repair.

“I’m one of the kids who helped to destroy some of the things in the community,” Brooks said. “By doing the school, I could help to rebuild something that I helped to destroy.”

Torrus Brooks (R) the administrative owner at The Barber School on Jackson Avenue in Klondike, helps students with a client.

Now an adult in the community, he hopes to set an example for the next generation.

Brooks, 47, grew up in the Klondike community on Olympic Street not far from the Barber School. After graduating from Central High School, Brooks received a scholarship to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, but dropped out after two years and joined the Army. In the military his interest in barbering grew and he enrolled in barber school in Flint, Michigan, after his discharge.

Brooks came full circle and returned to Memphis and enrolled in Christian Brothers University to complete his dream of becoming an engineer.

“I cut hair full time and went to school full time,” he said. He graduated three years later.

But after getting a position as an electrical engineer in Collierville, his longing for barbering returned. He resigned his job after working for only a year.

Kenny Young studies his book in one of the classrooms at The Barber School on Jackson Avenue in Klondike.

For Brooks, the road to owning a barber school had little to do with electrical engineering, but it bolstered his confidence and resolve to make an impossible situation work. With a start-up capital of about $30,000 saved through cutting hair, the arduous process began.

Now 17 years later, the Barber School is a federally accredited school, which allows students to apply for Pell Grants and federally funded loans. Enrollment on average is 125 students.

He opened and later sold two barber shops to focus on the Barber School. In 2015, he opened the Beauty School at 1317 Jackson Ave.

His mission for his students and the youth continues with his nonprofit Clippers Up, Guns Down that was created in 2016 and is a rally against youth violence. “Put down the guns and come learn the art of cutting hair” is the slogan.

“A large percentage of young men don’t have jobs. Seventy percent have felonies. Their backs are against the wall, but they can still gain a state license in barbering with a felony,” Brooks said.  “I’m trying to give them a true second chance.”

Torin Marshall gives Bill Candely a haircut at The Barber School on Jackson Avenue in Klondike.

Smokey City native Courtney Triggs, 41, got his second chance at The Barber School after spending 21 years in a Louisiana prison for armed robbery and attempted murder. A high school dropout, Triggs eventually got his GED.

“I started in October 2015,” he said. “I was in a halfway house and had just been released from prison. I heard from a couple of guys who told me that it was a good school to go to.”

Triggs received his Master Barber’s license in November, and is back in school to become an instructor.

“I want to own a school under the tutelage of Mr. Brooks,” he said. “That’s what the world is missing. They (instructors and Brooks) make you feel like you can do anything.”

The Barber School on Jackson Avenue in Klondike.

The Barber School’s companion facility, the Beauty School, offers six programs to its students including cosmetology, esthetician, facials, makeup application, nails and a natural hair program. 

“In addition to the students, instructor teachers come to learn how to teach the programs,” said Brooks, adding the school offers two master barber and master barber instructor programs.

Blytheville, Arkansas, native Taura Taylor is a part-time student with a specific discipline in laser hair removal and facials.

“I want to serve the senior community, and I want to open an adult daycare,” Taylor said, adding that a mobile spa is also a possibility.

Taylor said in addition to one-on-one instruction and the hands-on instruction, instructors advise students in professional development covering everything from marketing to the business aspect of the cosmetology field.

“So (the students) can see through me. I’m cut from the same cloth and they can achieve economic empowerment too,” Brooks said of his hope for his students.

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Read more articles by Thelma Balfour.

Thelma Balfour has been a freelance writer for USA Today and Newsweek. She also worked as a reporter for The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper in Memphis. She is the author of two books, Black Sun Signs: An African American Guide to the Zodiac and Black Love Signs.