Coiffure Gillespie – An NDG Gathering Place

By Robert J. Galbraith for the Montreal Gazette, 2010

Gillespie270210-001Notre Dame De Grace, Quebec—The discussion is getting heated as customer Paul Scott sits in a chair of Gillespie Coiffure, his hands flying and mouth moving non-stop. The din of the other dozen or so customers is reaching its crescendo as each one of them tries to voice their pick of Montreal’s most famous Black athlete.

But barber Michael Ebanks, continues working through the verbal earthquake that is shaking the small salon as he tries to judge his clients’ next movement while operating the hair clippers. The unfaltering barber retains his focus without shearing off an ear, as Scott’s head jiggles up and down like a bobble head doll.

Now this all may seem like some sort of hair cutting asylum, but it’s the furthest thing from that. It’s just another hectic Saturday at Gillespie’s Coiffure in NDG, where everyone who walks through the door is a brother, part of a fraternity.

“We call him el-cheapo,” states salon owner Phillip Gillespie of his good friend Paul. “You know that when he got his first hair cut here, he gave me a dollar and asked for 50 cents back. That’s how he got the name. If you use his real name, no one here will relate it to him.”

Gillespie’s is a place of great warmth on the bitterest cold of days, and anyone who drops in for a cut or chat is sure to be warmed by the hospitality and conversation that is always in the offing, like a blazing fire. The walls are covered with the portraits of Black heroes and pioneers, such as the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King and local boxer, Otis Grant.

The conversation continues. “Bill Willington was the best athlete. He played for the Chicago Bulls,” says the 40-year-old Scott, who was raised in La Salle. “He played with Jordan and was from the West Island.”

“The best athletes are from Little Burgundy,” interjected Gillespie. “But Little Burgundy has changed, the demographics have changed. People have moved out to the West Island, like the Irish moving out of the Pointe,” he states. “When I was growing up there was no Jamaicans, or Africans; we were all Blacks. Nowadays there is cultural segregation. The black population in Montreal has increased, and with it cultural divide,” explained Gillespie.

Gillespie2GazBut outside the doors of the salons’ fellowship, the divide between white and black is an everyday trial for the members of Montreal’s Black community. “There is more racial profiling by the police now than there ever was,” states Gillespie. “Ten years ago the older cops were not as bad as the younger ones we see now. I believe a lot of the young cops don’t come from the inner city, they are from the suburbs. They don’t understand those who live in the city. They are not from here. They are not in touch with the community.”

Stepping off a barber’s chair, sixteen-year-old Sean Roach of NDG confesses, “now black kids are avoiding taking the metro and take a bus to school because the metro security guys profile you and think you are going to steal somebody’s stuff,” admits the young man in a subtle, almost embarrassed voice. “Racism is like a jack-in-the-box. The racist pops up, then denies it, and disappears back into the box. It makes me feel really bad.”

No matter what the conversation, Gillespie’s is a local institution that serves a purpose greater than that of a hair salon. It is a place of discussion; part community centre and part village. Visitors not only receive a trim or cut, but they also have the opportunity to speak their mind amongst peers and get things off their chest and share a game of dominoes. And, if discussion is the road to understanding one another, then Gillespie’s is truly that, and a highway into the mind of NDG’s Black community.