Allan Francette, the “Big Al” of Big Al’s Unisex Hair at 2028 Monongahela Ave. in Swissvale, watched the debate between Pennsylvania Senate candidates John Fetterman and Mehmet Oz with heightened interest.

Though he’s had his differences with Fetterman over the years, he sympathized with him as the candidate struggled with the effects of a stroke that undermined his ability to speak with a bluntness befitting his political experience as the former mayor of Braddock.

“I’ve been there,” says Francette, a master barber with 30 years of experience cutting hair in his native Trinidad and Pittsburgh. “I had a stroke on the first day of the [pandemic] lockdown. I think it was from the stress of everything shutting down. I had to figure out what my next move was.”

It would be months before his barber shop, the main source of his income, would be allowed to reopen. There were so many unknowns the immigrant entrepreneur had to deal with along with a medical crisis that interfered with his ability to communicate clearly.

Big Al shaving Karlton, a customer who doesn’t give out his last name because “everyone knows who I am.” Photo by Tony Norman.

“I worked diligently and hard at getting into physical shape so I could get back to work before they reopened everything,” he says.

He was also studying to qualify for a license to sell insurance but put that dream aside to concentrate on his health and reopening the barbershop.

Juggling multiple objectives even while dealing with the challenges of communicating clearly to his wife and children was another example of the fierce will that brought Francette to Pittsburgh in 1997.

He graduated from barber school in 1999 and quickly opened his own shop in Swissvale. He’s maintained a presence in that community ever since — in part because the spaces he’s occupied are affordable and close to his West Mifflin home.

“There were maybe four barbershops in a square mile when I started. There was a shop in Rankin. There was also what we call a ‘white barbershop’ on Washington [Avenue],” he says with a laugh. That barbershop is not longer in business but much of Francette’s clientele is white because he’s renowned for dealing with the hair texture of whoever sits in his chair.

“Now there are three shops on Washington, five including my shop on Monongahela, one in Rankin, so in a square mile, we’re looking at five, six, seven, eight shops,” he says. “I guess it’s safe to say we’re the Mecca of barber shops in Pittsburgh.”

Big Al’s Unisex Hair at 2028 Monongahela Ave in Swissvale. Photo by Tony Norman.

Francette, who made a relatively swift recovery from his stroke, was ready when the state gave the OK for barbershops to open again.

“Being locked away for a while, people were anxious to get out,” he says. “The pandemic made them aware of the value of barbershops, hair salons and things like that. So, what we experienced was a crazy uptick in people just wanting to feel good about themselves by getting their hair done.”

Though his shop has been a mainstay in the community for more than two decades and the gold standard for quality cuts, Francette only recently got around to raising prices ($30 for an adult cut, $40 with a beard). The haircuts he and his three employees do now are on par with their competitors’ prices for the first time.

“It’s inflation,” he says. “All my customers understand this. Still, you get a little pushback, but for the most part, there isn’t much. Some of my clients even say, ‘I think it is about time you raised some of the prices.’”

As one of Big Al’s follicly challenged customers, I only have to worry about the cost of a twice-a-month beard trimming — formerly $10 a pop plus a $5 tip, now $20 with a $5-$10 tip. Still, it is worth an adjusted $60 a month just to listen to Francette and his barbers expound on everything from local politics to Ye’s latest antics.

As for Fetterman, Big Al is confident that if the candidate works as hard as he did to get back to his pre-stroke fighting condition, it will happen.

“Whatever it is that you’re doing, just put in the work and good things will follow,” he says.

Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.

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Tony NormanColumnist & Co-host of In Other News

Award-winning writer Tony Norman tells the untold stories of Pittsburgh’s Black communities in a weekly column for NEXT. The longtime columnist and editorial writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan and an adjunct journalism professor at Chatham University. He is the current chair of the International Free Expression Project.