It’s Friday afternoon at Agape Family Barber Shop and Reginald Johnson and his daughter, Valincia Johnson, are busy with a steady stream of clients, laughter erupting periodically as they banter about topics spanning from Instagram profiles and sporting events to long-awaited vacations and job changes.
"It's like 'Cheers' in here," Reginald Johnson says. "Everybody knows your name. Everybody knows your face. That's what I want — everybody to come in and have a good time."
Amid gentrification that is transforming the East Austin landscape and shrinking its number of family-owned businesses, Agape Family Barber Shop is holding steady thanks to its loyal base of customers, who come seeking a good, affordable cut or style and stay because it’s a place that makes them feel at home.
Reginald Johnson started cutting hair in his garage in East Austin as a teenager. Before long, a family friend noticed his talent and offered to pay for him to get his barber license if he would work in her shop.
"I've always enjoyed hair," says the 48-year-old. "I didn't realize I could actually make a career out of it."
After working for her for several years and obtaining his license, he decided in 2001 to open his own shop, which at the time was at MLK Boulevard and Chicon Street, near where the popular Sour Duck Market now stands.
"I was so used to being at an established barbershop," he says. "Now, I had to make my own way. It was kind of like leaving the nest from your parents' home."
While some of his regular clients decided to stay at the old shop, others joined him at his new place. He said coming up with the name — Agape Family Barber Shop — was easy.
"Agape means 'God's unconditional love,'" Reginald Johnson says. "We're all family, and if you come into the shop, we treat you like family."
For Valincia Johnson, 29, working at Agape Family Barber Shop truly is a family affair — owner Reginald Jonhson is her dad.
But while she has always shared her father's talent for hair, her path to the barber's chair was less straightforward.
"I totally didn't know this was the way my life was going to go," she says.
At age 10, Valincia learned to do hair from her mom and began using her younger sister as her "little mannequin" to test out different techniques and styles. By high school, she had a regular slate of clients she'd work on during study hall, after school and on weekends.
"They'd give me lunch or $5 or $10 to braid their hair," Valincia Johnson says. "To me, it was the relationships, the communication, the jokes, the laughter, down to the serious conversations that I would have with people. It's still to this day what I really like about doing hair, the relationship aspect of it."
At her father's urging, Valincia completed a program through her high school that allowed her to get her cosmetology license.
"My dad made me do it," she says. "He said I would always have something to fall back on. I got my license before I got my diploma."
After graduation, her dad asked her to join him at his shop. She declined.
"Me and my dad's relationship back then, I was like, 'You're trying to be in my business,'" Valincia Johnson recalls. "We had a big argument at that point because I was just being rebellious. I had all these other dreams and visions that I wanted to do, and I felt like he was just like, 'No.'"
Over the next few years, she worked various jobs that included being a stylist at chain hair salons, leasing apartments and taking inventory of medical devices, while also raising her daughter, Mya, who was born in 2011. But she never stopped doing hair on the side.
In March 2016, she finally admitted that she wanted something she had been fighting her whole life — to work with her dad. Nearly a decade after he first asked her, Valincia accepted his offer.
"I didn't have any clients," she says, "but I was here."
It was a transition for both of them.
"In the beginning, it was kind of rocky," Reginald Johnson says. "She's bullheaded. But now, I love seeing her come through the door every morning. There's more love than anything."
A third generation
In addition to being a place to get a haircut, Agape has also become a gathering place, hosting potlucks and barbecues on weekends where regulars crowd into the parking lot to share a meal.
Larry Orise Jr., 30, has been a client at the shop for the past three years. He calls the atmosphere “wholesome, welcoming and fun,” something he says is rare at your average barbershop or salon. He says he’s come to rely on Valincia for his braids.
“From a scale of 1 to 10, she’s a 30,” he says. “She’s very sought after.”
To Valincia, a highlight of her job is educating people about their own hair. In addition to her adult clients, she regularly works with children, including those who are part of biracial, adoptive and foster families.
“Education is important to me,” she says, “because you’re going to be with your hair more than I’m going to be with it.”
She says her favorite style to do on clients is dreadlocks because of the love, time and care they require.
"I'm the coach; I'm like, 'This is a process,'" she says. "It's like a seed we've planted, and now we're helping it grow. That's my favorite part. Once we're at the end, it's like, 'Remember you wanted to cut it? Remember when you were so distraught in my chair? Now look at you.'"
Standing near her mom's chair on a recent afternoon, Mya, now 8, scoured the counter for hair products she could combine to make new ones. She says she’d like to be “a lot of things” when she grows up, including a hair stylist. Her grandpa approves.
"I feel great about it, but I would like for her to take it further than just being behind the chair," Reginald Johnson says. "She could change the industry."
As for himself, Johnson would like to move from the shop's current location at 3218 E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., which is not street-facing and is partially obscured by a Whataburger, to a more prominent building that would encourage more walk-ins.
"Agape Family Barber Shop is inclusive to everyone," he says. "It's not just about a certain nationality or race. We want everyone to come and leave with a smile on their face because they were served well."
Valincia Johnson agrees, saying she looks forward to watching her clients evolve alongside her dad and her daughter in the years to come.
“A lot of places right now just want to be cool and be on social media. They’re not building personal relationships like we are here,” she says. “I feel like here, more than anywhere else, we build relationships. Let’s talk to each other. Let’s grow. Let’s listen.”
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