METRO VANCOUVER -- Abraham Berhe and Emebet Belay dreamed of opening a large hair and beauty salon on East Hastings Street in the Vancouver-Burnaby Heights area.
The couple already had a small shop, Afro Hair Studio on Commercial Drive, which specializes in cornrows, braids, dreadlocks and other Afro hairstyles. But they wanted to expand, offering manicures, pedicures and tanning services in addition to haircuts and styling.
They nearly reached that dream last February, spending $70,000 renovating a new 2,400-sq.-ft space at Hastings and Nanaimo. Then their new landlord, Coblenz Holdings Ltd., issued an edict.
“The landlord say we have restrictions, no white men’s haircuts or advertising in the window,” said Abraham, who had emigrated with his wife to Canada from Ethiopia 23 years ago.
“I thought he was joking, we never took it seriously. Like this we cannot run the business.... I was not expecting this would happen in Canada in 2012.”
The tenancy agreement was terminated on Feb. 28 last year, after Abraham and Belay argued the contract had been breached.
The parties became embroiled in a bitter dispute, which wrapped up this week, when B.C. Supreme Court Justice Linda Loo ordered a judgment of $67,706 in favour of Abraham and Belay. Loo ruled the landlord had not discussed any restrictions on cutting men’s hair with the couple until two months after the contract was signed and therefore did not reach an “enforceable agreement.”
By that time, the judge noted, the couple had incurred substantial labour and material expenses in renovating the shop, which smelled of mould, had cracked and uneven floors and was riddled with water leaks and rotten studs.
“Mr. Abraham and Ms. Belay would never had agreed to rent the premises or agreed to amend the rental agreement if they were restricted to cutting men’s hair only in Afro hairstyles,” Loo said in her written ruling.
Abraham said Thursday he was happy with the ruling, and “our dream is going to be true” although that depends on when the couple gets its money. He said the salon was a “lifelong dream” of his wife’s, who came from a family of hairdressers and has done cornrows and dreadlocks since she was 10.
It’s disappointing it’s come to this, he said, noting the edict was triggered over Coblenz’s concerns that a new salon would pose competition for an Italian barbershop Sorrento Barbers, run by Guiseppe Commisso — or Joe the Barber — and his partner Mino Tinaburri for the past 40 years, three doors down.
According to the judgment, Abraham said the landlord told them Joe the Barber was “an old friend” they didn’t want to upset him. As a result “they could only cut black men’s hair and even with black men’s hair they had to charge more money than Joe the barber.”
Commisso said in an interview Thursday he wasn’t worried about his business, noting he has had regular clients for the past 40 years, and “everybody’s got a right to live.”
But he felt it was disrespectful for Coblenz to allow another hair salon to open when it had also rented a space to a beauty salon around the corner.
“Too many business in one block, you cut throats with someone else,” Commisso said. “I don’t like to do that to somebody else or somebody to do it to me. They should be more careful.”
Abraham noted there are about 10 hair salons near his shop on Commercial, yet 35 per cent of his customers have been white men.
“We have lots of customers with different races,” Abraham said. “It was disappointing for me and my family.“
Norman Wignall, counsel for the couple, said if his clients accepted the restrictions, they would have opened themselves up for Human Rights complaints for refusing white customers. “That wasn’t just offensive to my clients, it was commercially unfeasible,” he said.
Coblenz argues the whole issue has been taken out of context. Carmen Smith, whose father Andreas Meyn runs the company, said Coblenz will appeal the ruling because “it’s just not true, that’s not the case at all.
“We just feel sick about it. Hopefully when we put the appeal forward, the real crux of the matter that will be clarified,” she said. “There were other issues involved that have not been outlined or acknowledged in the judgment. It is a different picture than what has been painted, but we’ll let the courts carry on with this. It’s pretty sad.”