Issue date: September 15, 1999

Barber shop poet: Jym Marks' hair salon lightens the head, feeds the mind Barber shop poet: Jym Marks' hair salon lightens the head, feeds the mind (September 15, 1999)

Jym Marks has been cutting and styling hair for about 30 years, but that's only part of his mission. He's equally determined to help shape the minds of customers who walk through the doors.

At the Markstyle hair salon on Willow Road, patrons can pick up a novel or poetry volume while waiting for a trim. Tucked behind the barber shop is a small African-American bookstore, accessible through a door at the back of the shop.

While books and styling gel might seem odd companions, Mr. Marks says it makes sense to combine a barber shop and a bookstore. He seems to be striving for a salon in the intellectual sense of the word -- like the 18th century salon, where people gather to discuss the important issues of the day.

"It was a great marriage of men coming together in the barber shop to debate history and art and sports and social issues, so they could walk back into the room and get the information they needed for the debates in the barber shop," Mr. Marks says about adding the bookstore nearly 10 years ago.

The juxtaposition of Langston Hughes and Vidal Sassoon may make more sense given the background of its 63-year-old owner. In addition to being a barber, Mr. Marks is an accomplished writer, public speaker, musician, and grandfather of eight. He has published nine volumes of poetry and performed with such jazz legends as Dexter Gordon.

Pictures in the barber shop display his musical roots -- snapshots of him posing with Dizzy Gillespie, and an autographed photo from John Lee Hooker peer out from the walls.

When he's not on the road giving motivational speeches or at home writing, Mr. Marks is in the barber shop, cutting hair and bantering with his employees and customers. The shop's diverse clientele reflects Mr. Marks' seeming comfort with both the ordinary and the luminary: His customers range from the contractor down the street to world-class athletes. Legend has it that baseball greats such as Bobby Bonds and his son, Giants outfielder Barry Bonds, have stopped by the shop from time to time.

Mr. Marks says barber shops like his provide more than haircuts.

"It's about men connecting, building conversations, rituals that sometimes they find no other platform to discuss," Mr. Marks says. "They meet the same people every two weeks and they can talk and there's a conversation that you can't find in other places."

Young artist

Mr. Marks' creative instincts and ability to connect with people emerged at an early age while growing up in Chidester, Arkansas. By his own account, he was popular with teachers and other kids, and he expressed himself through almost any artistic outlet he could find -- painting, singing, performing plays. But all of his popularity and artistic talent masked a problem: He never learned how to read.

"I was a very talented, creative, popular student, and the teachers really liked me," Mr. Marks recalls. "Because of that, you get away with a lot, you let it slide, and it comes back to haunt you.

"The fact is that people overlooked my illiteracy," he says. "I faked it. It was a con, I was a con."

Mr. Marks says he would give kids money or do favors to get test answers. And while his family gave him guidance and didn't let him become overwhelmed by racism -- a substantial accomplishment in the South in those days, he said -- they never pushed him academically.

"We were rich with love, we were rich with family, but I had no support with my education," he explains. "My parents never checked on me. They never asked to see my grades or look at a report card. They just wanted to know if I stayed out of trouble and loved God."

The fact that he moved around a lot as a child probably didn't help with the school problems. His parents divorced when he was nine months old, so he lived with his father and relatives in Arkansas and Illinois, before moving out to Oakland to be with his mother and sister.

In Oakland, he lived next to future Black Panther Bobby Seale. "We were friends," Mr. Marks says of the Black Power leader. "Of course, we went off in different directions, but we were friends."

As a teen, Mr. Marks' direction took him into music. He learned how to play drums, and was playing professionally by age 15. He'd sing doo-wop songs with friends on the street corner. He learned other instruments, including keyboards, and later would produce two albums in the early 1970s. "I was the first rap artist on the Peninsula," he says. "I bet a lot of people didn't know that."

Even back on that street corner, Mr. Marks had a love for words. He would come up with the lyrics, but someone else would have to write them down. He dropped out of school in the 11th grade.

It wasn't until Mr. Marks was 19, stationed in Germany with the Army, that the problem came back to haunt him.

He had gotten a seven-page, romantic letter from a girlfriend, but couldn't read a word of it. A friend read the letter to him, but also shared its contents with the rest of the barracks. Mr. Marks says he was humiliated. And angry.

"I was crying all night, sobbing all night," he says. "The next day, my pity turned to hate, hate for everyone who allowed me to get to the 11th grade without me learning how to read."

Soon he stopped crying and decided to fix the problem. He checked books out of the Army library by the handful, only to return days later. A librarian spotted his problem and offered to teach him reading. He went to the library almost daily, and she helped him get his high school equivalency and told him he was going to college. He had never imagined that.

When Mr. Marks returned to California, he studied music at Foothill College before enrolling in San Jose State, where he attended night classes for seven years and got a sociology degree. He got married and had four kids.

The ability to read, he says, helped him find a place in life.

"It opened the greatest avenues for social acceptance," he says. "I felt I could fit into any social environment. I felt that any subject that was brought up in my presence, I was equipped to discuss.

"The foundation of who I am came the day I went to the library," he says. "Since that day, I have never been absent from a book."

Local hangout

Walking into the Markstyle hair salon is like stepping back in time. The pace instantly slows down, everyone seems to know each other's names, and the atmosphere feels friendly, familiar. Though the signs outside welcome women ("Ladies are respected and welcome here," one proclaims), the salon is more like the old-fashioned barber shop and local male hangout.

Mr. Marks says he bought the place 30 years ago so he would have a place to hang out after work and on weekends, when he worked as an executive at the Veteran's Administration Hospital. He opened the bookstore in 1990, hoping to give customers access to literature that he never had growing up. The decision to keep it an African-American bookstore was deliberate, he says.

"This is not because of discrimination," Mr. Marks says of the African-American focus. "You can go to Kepler's, Borders, Barnes & Noble, and you can find only a small African-American section. What I am giving the African-American community is broadening their choices. I've got books you can't find in Barnes & Noble."

When Mr. Marks opened the bookstore, though, he was surprised by something: The large majority of the bookstore's customers -- about three-fourths of them -- were women. Some of the male barber shop customers wander back into the book shop to get books, as do the employees, but Mr. Marks says he was surprised that men didn't spend more money on books. He says he wished that people, particularly African Americans, would make reading a higher priority.

"It's more important for African Americans to read, for the simple reason that we need to know our history," he says. "We need to know that slavery didn't break us or cripple us. It's hugely important for African Americans to know how far we've come as people."

The bookstore itself seems like a natural extension of Mr. Marks' personality and intellectual curiosity. Posters of civil rights activists, jazz musicians and abolitionists adorn the walls, and the shelves are filled with history books, inspirational books, poetry and religion. Upbeat, inspirational mottos pop up throughout the store.

It's also the perfect place for Mr. Marks to hold court. He springs up to find a book to illustrate a point, or to locate information relevant to the conversation. He speaks like a disciplined writer, thinking over what he just said. He adds thoughts he might have missed, makes sure the words are just right.

When asked to name his heroes, Mr. Marks doesn't treat it just as a mental exercise. He takes the task seriously, naming his top two picks, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. "Without these two people we might still be using colored drinking fountains," he says. But then he breaks it down into categories: writing (Langston Hughes), sports (Muhammad Ali), music (Miles Davis).

But hold on, he says minutes later -- he forgot to mention an important hero. It's Al Young, the writer, who also happens to be a close friend. He has to be put higher on the list, Mr. Marks said, even before Langston Hughes.

According to Mr. Marks, Al Young encouraged him to open the bookstore, and inspires him to write. He said it's important for him to write, because it helps him deal with the pressures of life.

"I really write to keep sane, to process life, and stay focused on what's important," he explains. "The key really is not to sweat the small stuff."

Mr. Marks is referring to his favorite book, the best-selling "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff" by Richard Carlson, which he also promotes as a life philosophy. He says people spend too much time worrying about negative things and hurrying off in too many directions. "We're in such a hurry these days to go to someplace unknown," he says.

Those words may sound ironic coming from a man who owns a barber shop and a bookstore, writes books, goes on speaking tours, and publishes some of his own books. He says "good time management" and organizational skills help him fit it all in, but a few years ago, he did give up something he loved -- playing music.

"I just retired from playing six years ago," he says. "I got sidetracked by writing and all of the things I was doing."

A minute later, Mr. Marks pauses and smiles. "I don't like the word retire, makes it sound like I'm dying or something."

Haircut, with respect

Mr. Marks' next hair appointment is waiting, so it's time to go back into the barber shop. But before he goes back out, he has one request: "When you write about this, you might want to mention those guys in there," he says. "Don't want them to think the boss is hogging all the glory."

"Those guys" are Mr. Marks' barbers, Bobby Mack and Azizz Coogler. Mr. Marks says he has about six employees, but these are the guys who cut hair with him every day. Despite the razzing that goes on, they both appear extremely loyal to the boss. Mr. Mack says "he's a great guy to work for and work with. He's a great person and a considerate man."

The shop's friendly atmosphere encourages discussion, he adds.

"They come in and talk about their job, their love life, the weather," Mr. Mack says. "And current events -- we're heavy on current events. You can find the news at the barber shop."

The customers seem to agree. A couple of them said they come to Jym Marks' shop because they like the way people are treated there -- respect they don't find in other places, even in other barber shops. The bookstore is another selling point. And of course, there are the haircuts, $12 for a basic cut.

"It's the best barber shop in the Bay Area," says Lawrence London, who stops in every week for a haircut. Mr. London should probably know -- as a SamTrans bus driver on the Palo Alto-San Francisco route, he has plenty of chances to get around the area. "There's good company, good advice, they do a good job.

"It's like having additional fathers," he says. "I come in and ask for advice."

Mr. Coogler also refers to Mr. Marks as a father figure. He says working at Markstyle is a learning experience -- he gets books from the back, and learns from the customers. "They have a lot to talk about," he says. "Not just what's happening in Menlo Park, or Palo Alto, but what's happening in the world."

Mr. Marks is working on another poetry volume and a compilation of his motivational speeches. But the literary world and the hairstyling business may become more melded with his newest project, which hits closer to home -- or at least his home away from home on Willow Road.

"I'm writing a play," he says. "This play's going to be about barber shops and the dialogue in barber shops.

He says the setting will make for some interesting dialogue. "Every subject you can name or mention gets discussed in a barber shop," he explains. "I know that by the time I leave work every day, I am going to leave having learned something."

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