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A flair for the fade: Bemidji barber Michael Flaherty wants to share knowledge with others

Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer Adding color to a finished cut makes it pop. It is one of the specialty services offered by master barber Michael Flaherty, owner/operator of Fade Masters in downtown Bemidji. 1 / 2
Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer Donning his Irish hat, Fade Master owner/operator Michael Flaherty brings art into hair styling. 2 / 2

A regular customer couldn’t get into Michael Flaherty’s barber shop one day, so he went elsewhere and asked for a low-bald fade.

“She said, ‘Oh you want a ball fade?’ and she took her clipper attachment off and went meeeoooorrrr right over the top of his head,” said Flaherty, who operates Fade Masters in downtown Bemidji.

“They don’t know the terminology,” he continued. “They don’t know how it’s supposed to look.”

But Flaherty does — and now he wants to teach others those same skills.

“Any place in the world, wherever you go, you’d have a job,” he said of barbers.

‘the fade master’

Flaherty is half-Irish and a White Earth tribal enrollee. His mother, from White Earth, met his father while she was in the Twin Cities, then 19 years old, looking for work.

They married and moved to California, where Flaherty’s father, Don, operated barber shops of his own, one in Hollywood and one in Sunset Beach.

“We were raised a very proud, Irish Catholic family,” Flaherty. “I’m proud of my Native American heritage. I’m proud of my Irish heritage.”

Born in Hollywood, Flaherty, who formerly operated a six-chair barber shop on the east side of St. Paul, moved to rural Clearwater County about a decade ago, to his 100-acre homestead with his wife and four kids.

“I came up here with the intentions of opening up a business in Bemidji, but I got stuck in Ebro,” he said. “I was comfortable there … I turned the garage into a barber shop, the Ebro Barber Stylist.”

He quickly built a customer base.

“I’m 8 miles out in the middle of no place, yet I’m pulling in customers from Bemidji, Grand Forks, Dilworth, Moorhead, all over the place, even Red Lake, White Earth,” Flaherty said.

But then gas hit $4 a gallon and business slowed. When it hit $4 a gallon the following year again, Flaherty knew he was at a crossroads.

Two failed attempts to open a shop in the Mahnomen area led him to look toward Bemidji.

On a contract for deed, he took hold of the small building across from Cenex — the former dragon bookstore located at 328 Second St. NW — and opened Fade Masters in February.

During the renovation process, he met a woman who doubted his potential for success, telling him he’d have a whole lot of competition due to the number of beauty shops in the city.

“She told me, ‘You’re going to have to learn how to do those fade cuts. Everyone is wanting those fade cuts.’

“I said, ‘Well I’ve got a little barber shop down in Ebro, 30-40 miles away from here, and I cut a lot of people’s hair from up here already.

“And she said, ‘Oh, so you’re the guy who’s cutting everyone’s hair. My son goes to your shop.’”

Flaherty said since opening in Bemidji, he’s accumulated a monthly customer base of about 300, as he does everything from traditional haircuts to fades to free-hand designs, some colored in with specialty tools.

“They call him the fade master,” said his niece, Serene Eidem.

paying it forward

Flaherty and Eidem, who operates Serene Dream Design, together are now working to organize what is planned to become an annual event, the Hair Fair Extraordinaire.

The event, to be held Nov. 9 in Mahnomen, will feature everything from educational sessions, during which Flaherty will teach fade terminology and skills; and a number of competitions for professionals and students.

There also will be a performance by Tito Ybarra, a comedian, and a runway show featuring a local designer.

The goal is two-fold. Foremost, Flaherty, who turns 59 this week, wants to share the skills he has learned as a master barber, having begun cutting hair at age 20.

“I’m tired,” Flaherty said. “I need to start training people, teaching them what I know.”

Flaherty, who a couple years ago passed his pre-requisites at Bemidji State University, also hopes to raise enough funds to allow him to open his own barber school. His dream is to have his students move on to open their own shops.

“We have a serious lack of barbers all across the nation,” he said. “Most of the barbers are staying in (metropolitan) cities. There’s 30,000 beauticians in the state of Minnesota and there’s only 1,900 barbers and most of them are in the Cities.”

Also, he said, the nine-month school will equip people with a needed life skill that would allow them to cultivate their own careers.

“You can get a job anyplace in the world if you cut hair well,” Flaherty said. “You can bring your barbershop with you in a suitcase.”

“He told me one day that there was a time when he would drive around and all he had in his pocket was his scissors,” Eidem said.