Oddfellow Joel Martell runs barbershop his way

Halfax • 2018-05-08 • By Jordan Parker

Even before barber Joel Martell came out, he felt like he lived outside the norm. So it's not difficult to run his little barbershop -- tucked away on the second floor of Pro Skates on Quinpool Road -- with a friendly edge.

Oddfellows Barbershop is a space that welcomes everyone, no matter their creed, colour, or sexuality. And yet, Martell never specifically buckled down to make his shop queer-inclusive.

"I never consciously thought I needed to make an inclusive space, because this just is one. Being part of the status quo is boring. I want the people on the fringes of society to come here. They get cool haircuts and they're fun to talk to," said Martell.

He sports a toque -- despite the beaming sun on the April afternoon -- and a metal chain hangs from his pocket as he jokes with me and everyone who strolls in and out of the shop.

"Things are gonna get real gay for this interview," Martell says with a grin. The young lawyer sitting  in his co-worker Jeremy Naugler's chair flashes a giant smile.
With Joel, there's no hiding exactly who he is, and he says no one who comes in would be bothered anyway.

"I think by way of the fact I am gay and I've always existed in one community or another on the outskirts, my personality is welcoming to everyone. It's just my nature," he said.

"When someone comes in here who feels like not everywhere welcomes them with open arms, we're here for them. To see them walk in nervous and leave feeling value is magical."

Martell found barbering after a long, arduous career as an IT industry sales rep, following obtaining his degree. It was what he thought he should be doing, but not what he wanted by any stretch.

"I originally wanted to work in the skateboarding industry, and I was in Vancouver. Everything in my life has revolved around that in one way or another," he said. "But I realized there was a hustle where you had to work hard for little money. I was heartbroken to abandon that passion, and got into this IT job."

He was cold-calling people from a home office, hoping his considerable charm and friendly demeanour could make him some easy cash. When his luck didn't turn, he focused his sights on cutting hair.

"Small business has been in my family my whole life. This seemed like a natural progression. I learned to cut hair in Vancouver, and worked in a shop there where people mentored me," he said.

"I felt I had something to offer, but for a small business in B.C., you need serious down payments or an angel investor." The South Shore native laughs heartily at the suggestion his younger self could have found a sugar daddy. "I could have had that actually, but chose not to," he says with a grin, choosing not to specify further.

He says he chose barbering for a number of unique reasons, but mostly because it fit his personality. "I'm a human being obsessed with style and aesthetic. I have been my entire life. Even before I could define it, I was doing anything a young, closeted gay kid would do. Except it all had a skateboarder twist," he said.

"I was decorating my room when I was 10, and everything on the walls had to be just so. But instead of floral, I was covering the walls with photos from skateboarding magazines."

He knew the owners of Pro Skates, and had been spending money in the shop for years. Martell says he's always "worshipped" the land the business treads on.
"They just all knew me when I was in Halifax. I would skateboard and film it, and I was always around," he said.

"I asked about coming into the shop and cutting hair for two days on a weekend. I offered to give them a cut of the proceeds. I had my uncle's barber chair and I just needed some space."

With a short-term agreement in place, Martell not only brought his skateboarder friends in for fresh cuts, but his university friends and those he knew from the LGBTQ+ community where visiting too.

"All of a sudden, people were coming in and getting a haircut. ProSkates was exposed to new clientele who were buying things because they were in the store. They would pick up clothing," he said.

With that symbiotic relationship, Martell was asked back full-time. 

But when a cafe took over in the front corner on the first floor, the owners were no longer sure they could house him.

"The original plan was where the coffee shop was coming in at the time, but for obvious reasons we didn't want to mix coffee and hair," he said.

"I emailed the owners and asked about the garage. It was originally a spot to wax snowboards, store motorcycles and overstock, and it had a mini skateboard ramp. It was a junkyard."

But one photo of a California business where a mechanic put a barbershop in the back of his autobody business changed Pro Skates' minds.

"It was a total accident, but all of us working together gave birth to this idea of no square footage left unused," he said.

"Also people leave here after a cut with dopamine out the wazoo. They feel fresh. So they can buy a shirt. I love to see people so excited about this place."

Martell got started with Oddfellows in September 2014, and built his client base slowly.

"The clientele was just everybody. I've always been somewhat of a socialite. You don't discriminate on who comes in. It's really easy to convince people to visit when your job is just to be friends with people," he said.

Martell has been out since he was 18, and has encouraged those who come to his shop to feel completely open. In his own right, he's forward about how he's gotten to be so confident.

"I met a 40 year old guy on the Internet from Australia. I was going to university in New Brunswick. I was dying to discover myself and my sexuality, and I moved to fucking Fredericton," he said.

"So I took a year to go traveling and went to meet him. My mom asked if I was sure, and I said, 'I've never been so sure about something in my life.' She says she knew I was gay right then."

He met the man, and they began a "Brokeback Mountainesque story." "It was the best thing I could have done. I would have come out no matter what, but there was something special in this dynamic of Greek love and a younger man with an older one," he said.

"He was respectful and showed me what it meant to live life as an out gay man. I learned so much that I was able to come back home having fallen in love, and I came out to my parents when I got back."

He hopes that -- through being so at ease with himself -- he can uphold the responsibility of showing others they can be comfortable in their own skin.
"I can tell you I've been around people who have never been exposed to a gay man in their life, and they've changed their perspective on what that means after meeting me. I'm just being myself, and I also happen to be gay," he said.

He says the skateboarding community -- one he loves so much -- can sometimes be innately homophobic. "The skateboarders, traditionally speaking, are not the most accepting. So when I told my friends here, it was a big deal for a bit. And yeah, they asked stupid questions. But I was patient, and I brought people around," he said.

"Fast forward, and I have this awesome spot in the skate shop, I'm a public figure, and I think it's my responsibility to be open about who I am and break some taboos."

His co-worker, Naugler, is covered in tattoos up to his neck. But Martell says not to let the ink fool you.

"He has this immediate warmth and friendliness like me. If you see him in photos with a serious face, he can be scary and intimidating. But he says 'hello' once and you realize he's a teddy bear," said Martell.

Though Naugler is straight, he and Martell run a completely LGBTQ+ friendly shop, and both are happy to take on clients from all different backgrounds.

"When you think about every sub-demographic of our culture, so much revolves around look and identity. Personal style is huge, especially for those who identify as unique. We take pride in cutting hair to suit everyone's style," said Martell.

"I see bears and daddies love tight military bald fades. Twinky guys love long, flowing, fashionable styles. Members of the trans community get a lot of cool haircuts. I can look at a beautiful husky daddy bear and know exactly how to make that person look handsome."

He says the trans community in particular sees a huge stigma around getting haircuts.
"A lot of trans people want a short cut and want to go to a barbershop, but old school places either aren't accepting or the person is afraid they won't be," he said.

"When they find out a gay dude runs Oddfellows, they may feel more comfortable. But this isn't about me being gay. Jeremy and I just aren't assholes. We're going to take care of everyone who comes in."

For Martell, nothing beats a client who is going to keep him entertained.

"People who have struggled are generally more interesting, and anyone in the LGBTQ+ community can confidently say they've struggled in one way or another. It's an easier atmosphere when not every conversation revolves around the weather," he said.

"You end up attracting clientele with a mentality similar to yours. It's not about putting people in categories. Anyone with an interesting story while they're in my chair is someone I'm attracted to."

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