The sounds of rhythm-and-blues singer Usher pulse in the barbershop. On a recent Saturday morning, men and boys walk in and sit to await their turns in the chair. Some of them are here for a cut, others for a taper or a quick shape-up.
Brian White bobs his head to the music as he guides an electric razor across the hairline of a young customer. A few chairs over, Tony Beckham, another barber cutting a client's hair, blurts out: "Do you know why there's so much air in potato chip bags?"
The chips, he explains, emit gases over time that must be absorbed by the air in the bag. "Otherwise, the bag will explode!" he says, to laughter all around.
Walk into Freeman's Barber Shop in Largo, and there's a good chance that the barbers and their clients will be engaged in a robust discussion about, well, anything -- politics, the Redskins, gas prices, that green stuff in fruitcake or, recently, hurricanes.
Generally, a good haircut is what makes a barbershop or hairstyling salon a hit. At Freeman's, the haircuts are good, the discussion is G-rated and the barbers are friendly. But it is Robert Freeman, 39, the shop's owner, with his easygoing manner and philanthropic ways, who keeps many clients coming back.
Freeman's personality and generous nature, even toward people he has never met, are among the reasons J.D. Bynum, a part-time Metro employee who lives in Silver Spring, said he drives to Largo for haircuts.
"The atmosphere, the people, it's all great," Bynum said.
Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a regular, agrees.
"That's my barbershop," Steele (R) said recently. "That's where I go and hang out to look respectable."
Freeman, a native of Georgia and the son of a barber, works full time for the federal government, but he has turned his small side business into a way to invest in his community.
His projects include raising money for scholarships and sending kids to Wizards games. He took more than 50 children to the UniverSoul Circus in Landover Hills in June. He hires teenagers to work in his shop, but only if they keep their grades up.
Freeman supports Little League teams and high school marching bands. His shop offers blood pressure screenings and forums on breast and prostate cancer. His signature charity effort is an annual college scholarship drive. Freeman raises $4,000 to $8,000 each year and awards scholarships of $500 or $1,500 for college or vocational school.
In recent weeks, Freeman put the word out that his shop had started a fundraising venture to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. The idea came after longtime customer Don Jackson, 53, of Suitland mentioned to his buddies in the shop that he had relatives on the Gulf Coast who needed help. The shop adopted his family members, who are now staying in Clinton, and started collecting donations for them and other victims.
Perfecting the Personal Touch
Veteran barber Buddy Owens said the shop works hard to win over clients.
"What we stress is family orientation," Owens said. "There's no cursing or lewd behavior. It's a place where families come to be comfortable."
Freeman started cutting hair as a teenager in his father's shop in Milledgeville, Ga. After moving to the District in 1989 to work for the government, he continued to cut hair in his spare time.
He opened his first shop on Central Avenue in Capitol Heights. After that business was on solid footing, he opened two others, in Largo and Laurel. He also still runs his father's shop in Milledgeville, which he visits about every three weeks.
Freeman said he plans to install free wireless communication in his shops. He figures that will boost business and extend his investment in the community.
As Freeman sees it, the connection between business and community is a no-brainer. He said that giving back is a way for businesses to establish loyalty and create a sense of belonging in the community.
"I feel like that's home base, and I need to stay very connected," Freeman said of the Mitchellville, Largo, Kettering and Capitol Heights area he serves. "It makes me feel really good when a customer says, 'Really appreciate what you all do for the community.' ''
Freeman pointed to a neighboring business that donated three weeks' worth of dinners to the Jackson family.
"We can all go to the Red Cross or the Salvation Army," Freeman said. "But this way, there's a more personal feel to it."
On a busy day before the start of school, two children are in front of the Largo shop selling hot dogs and popcorn for the scholarship fund.
Inside, about 25 other children and adults watch a DVD, the Ice Cube comedy "Are We There Yet," on one of the shop's two televisions as they await their turns in the barber's chair.
One woman is reading a "Sesame Street" book to her daughter while her son gets his hair cut. A man reads a newspaper with his grandson propped on his knee. Two elementary-age kids thumb-wrestle. With the sound of electric razors in the background, some use the time to doze.
Reginald Agbebaku, 13, is wide awake as he sits in Beckham's chair. A ninth-grader at Archbishop Carroll High School in the District, he wants to look sharp for the start of the school year.
"You want your neck boxed out or faded?" Beckham asks.
"Faded," Agbebaku replies.
And he wants thin sideburns. "Oh, okay, you want a teenager's cut," Beckham says. "You're not a kid anymore, huh?"
At Freeman's, the staff and clients often recognize or even celebrate milestones.
Elias Lartey, 13 months old, is about to mark a major one: his first haircut.
As he has done for so many little ones, Beckham places the boy on a cushion in the chair, takes a pick and pulls out the soft curls. Elias works on a lollipop, drools and squirms while Beckham gathers clumps of hair and cuts gently with long, silver-colored scissors.
Elias's father stands nearby to receive the curls for a baby book. After all the wriggling, Elias is handed a certificate that reads: "Elias Lartey has bravely met all the requirements of receiving his first haircut and has graduated from babyhood on the 20th of August, 2005."
This Isn't a Library
At Freeman's, clients and barbers get to know one another, sharing details about their lives and their dreams.
There's Angela Norwood, the barber who also teaches English at Prince George's Community College. And Alex Deal, the barber who is studying at the University of Maryland in College Park for a degree in computer science.
Clients and their barbers catch up on each other's family members and the latest news in the community. They pontificate about current events and chat about the hottest cars and the week's big game.
Freeman's is so lively that every now and then the barbers are featured on a weekly radio program called "The Barber Shop Show" on WOL 1450 AM. The show, which features D.C. area barbershops, tries to capture the mood and pulse of communities by talking to those who often are the ears of the neighborhood.
Brian White interrupts the cut he is giving a boy to make a point. "Can I bring something to your attention?" he says, as eyes turn toward him.
"That same 12 to 15 gallons of gas in your tank is burning faster than it did before, did you notice that?" says White, who is frustrated because he recently had to pay $45 to fill his vehicle. "They're charging us more for less."
He holds up his hands in resignation: "Who wants to start riding a bike?"
Nobody answers, but Beckham, a member of the Air Force Reserve, offers that jet fuel is less expensive than car fuel. Nobody believes him, so he abruptly stops cutting his client's hair to make a phone call. "How much is a gallon of jet fuel?" Beckham asks the person at the other end of the line.
He puts the phone on speaker, and the person he called at Andrews Air Force Base confirms that jet fuel is indeed cheaper.
"This is a little trivia you can throw out at a cookout," Beckham says.
And so goes the discussion until Norwood tires of the meandering chitchat and calls for quiet time.
"Can't we have a moment of silence?" she asks. "Can't we put music on?"
Her co-workers shake their heads.
"Come on," White says. "It's a barbershop."
Staff writer Yawandale Birchett-Thompson contributed to this story.