WILDWOOD — Levern Fitzpatrick has gone from self-described street thug to small-business owner.
Fitzpatrick, 40, of Middle Township, owns and operates J&E Beauty Supply and Salon on Pacific Avenue in Wildwood, a cosmetics store and barbershop he started in 2011.
But it was a twisting road that brought him to business respectability by way of two stints in New Jersey state prisons on drug-distribution charges.
“I got into that drug life and took a fall at 18. I did my first time behind the wall and didn’t learn from that and went back to prison,” he said.
Fitzpatrick said he was determined not to make the same mistakes a third time. He started writing in prison, including his first self-published novel, and later a screenplay about a person living with HIV. When he was paroled in 2003, he volunteered to speak to young people about the mistakes he made.
“My mother didn’t raise me to go to prison. The question was, ‘What in the world am I doing in here? I’m smarter than this. I have more to offer the world,’” he said.
Today, Fitzpatrick works six days a week at his barbershop, where he caters to a racially diverse mix of clients: white, Hispanic and black. And he continues to give motivational speeches at community centers.
He especially caters to Wildwood’s growing population of Mexican residents. It takes skill to meet the barbering needs of so many different cultures, he said.
“I’ve gotten a lot of guys with cell phones pull up pictures. ‘Can you cut my hair like this?’ I say, ‘OK, absolutely, sit down,’” he said.
Fitzpatrick started cutting his own hair in the mirror as a young teenager. He found he had a talent for it. Soon his friends were asking him to cut their hair. He went to Cape May County Vocational Technical School to get state-licensed in cosmetology.
“I can do anyone’s hair, but I prefer being a barber,” he said.
“My sign says salon so I have women who stop in now and again wondering if we do hair. I have to say no. I can do it, but I don’t do it,” he said. “It’s a time-consuming deal. If I have 10 guys waiting for a haircut, there’s no way I could do a woman’s hair.”
On a recent weekday, five customers waited for their turn in the shop’s only barber chair. Fitzpatrick’s son, Michael Bailey, 18, played rap music on the sound system and joked around with the customers. Bailey graduated from Middle Township High School in 2012.
“My dad taught me if there is something you want to do, strive,” Bailey said. “Don’t stop.”
Bailey said he likes hanging out at his father’s barbershop, but he wants to get a job in accounting.
Fitzpatrick usually has a conversation with every customer, such as Keith Cornish, 53, of Wildwood Crest, who stopped to get a trim for New Year’s Eve.
“You’re a confidant, therapist, doctor,” Fitzpatrick said. “It all stays in here.”
Cornish said he has only gone to about four barbers in his entire life. People are fiercely loyal to the good ones, among whom he counts Fitzpatrick, he said.
“You don’t have to tell him because he knows what you want,” Cornish said.
J&E also caters to people of all ages. Fitzpatrick said he gave a 1-year-old boy his first haircut.
“I even nicked him with the clippers and he didn’t cry at all,” Fitzpatrick said.
“You nicked me with the clippers, and I didn’t budge,” Cornish said.
By the front window, several customers in their 20s waited their turn.
“It can be really frustrating finding a good barber,” said Nigeo Cruz, 21, of Wildwood. “The other barbers don’t cut my hair the way I like.”
Now Fitzpatrick has his eyes set on teaching the art of barbering. First, he has to accumulate more hours of professional experience, he said.
In the meantime, he is building a steady and loyal clientele in southern Cape May County.
“I’m my own biggest competitor,” he said. “The only way I’d lose out is if I snooze. I love it. I was always told as a kid that if you get paid for doing something you love, it’s not work.”
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