There is a Mandinka warrior loose in Memphis. His name is Pete Sherrif and he owns the Clean Cuts Full Service Beauty Salon at 667 South Highland. A short man with a spring in his step, Sherrif (pronounced shuh-reef) smiles wide as he mischievously evades questions about his marriage status. ("Not too long, really," he says, when asked how long he's been married.) After admitting how many kids he has -- 10 -- his eyes twinkle as he adds, "If you print that, no one will want me no more!"
Love life aside, Sherrif's work ethic is undeniable. Even as I'm talking to him, I feel as if he is in mid-leap between very important places, and that I had better use his time wisely.
"I get up at 4 o'clock in the morning. I work at the airport and at about 12:30 I go to [my brother's] car lot. Before I go home, I come to the shop. Even after I get home, I get on the computer, looking for more business. "You have to have courage," he adds.
This courage, according to Sherrif, is his ethnic heritage. Raised by a Muslim imam in the midst of 14 brothers and sisters, Sherrif learned the value of education and reinvesting early on. His father operated an Islamic school for 150 students, ranging in ages from 3 to 30. His mother cooked the meals. The school was self-supporting, with a peanut and rice farm used to feed the students and generate income.
When I comment that the number of siblings in his family (seven brothers and seven sisters) is lucky and may have something to do with his success, Sherrif disagrees: "Luck is one thing. Seriousness is something else. Seriousness and courage."
After completing his school studies in Liberia and Guinea, Sherrif immigrated to the West Coast of the United States, where he had some relatives and friends. Sherrif realized that his likability would serve him well: "I said to myself: If I go to a developed country, I'll do much better."
Sherrif arrived in Los Angeles in 1969 and studied air conditioning and refrigeration. At the behest of a younger brother with a new car dealership, he moved to Memphis. He's been here ever since.
By all appearances, Clean Cuts is a typical small American salon. There are stylist's stations and swiveling black leather chairs with grooved shampoo bowls nearby. Still clad in his airport uniform, Sher rif fills a request for change from his barber in English and asks his wife to turn down the music in French.
The shop is less than a mile from the University of Memphis, in a new retail strip that also contains a staffing service, a violin store, and a cell-phone outlet. Pictures of attractive black women with their hair in the latest braided styles adorn the windows.
Sherrif says he invests all of his earnings in his fledgling business, but he's concerned about staffing.
"We are desperately looking for stylists and master barbers. I don't know what happens here in Memphis. A lot of them go to school, but they don't take the test. They don't obtain their license." His four-month-old operation only employs one barber, but he adds, "I know there's a better day that will come."
When asked what advice he would give prospective business owners, he becomes reflective: "They must put seriousness in what they want to do. Seriousness and honesty. Honesty. Repeat that. People are not very honest here. They are too playful. We all know how to play. But when it is time for seriousness, you've got to be serious."