The first full year he cut hair for a living, Shaun “Lucky” Corbett also worked the overnight shift serving greasy pizza to Uptown’s midnight wanderers.
This was 2005, and Lucky was hell-bent on making a legal living. He’d started selling drugs as a 12-year-old boy in Brooklyn, New York, in the early 1990s, back when boys in Brooklyn didn’t dream of living into their 20s.
Then when 20 came, he had a realization that he might also make it to his 30s, and 40s. And if that happened, he wondered, what kind of life would it be?
He enrolled in No Grease barber school. It wasn’t cheap: $10,000. He took a job at the Fuel Pizza on The Green in uptown to keep cash coming in. On Saturdays, he went to the barbershop before 7 a.m., and stayed until the evening, then on to the night job. He served slices until 3 a.m. and washed dishes until 5 or 6 a.m. Every weekend.
His old friends called him Pizza Boy and Mr. Pizza. But he never slipped.
Now here he is, freshly 40, on Thursday last week, with 100 or so people gathered on Wilkinson Boulevard to celebrate him as he becomes the first black businessperson to ever own and operate a barbershop in any Walmart, anywhere.
The mayor is here, and she’s dancing. Police officers are electric-sliding. And a giant corporation has a giant check waiting for the little man.
Charlotte has its share of squabbles these days, but nobody in the store is worried about them with Lucky around. Nobody’s concerned with who said what about an NFL owner and his soccer stadium, or who spilled what to which media outlet, or whether a doorbell camera is a safety device or a privacy invasion.
The issues of the week don’t matter. Instead they’re here to cheer on one man’s long-term vision as he strolls toward the stage in a charcoal-colored suit to the sound of “Return of the Mack.”
It’s a big deal. Walmart, the world’s biggest retailer, doesn’t just give away space. Before Shaun came along, the company’s tenants were all chains. SmartStyle was in the Wilkinson space before Shaun; SmartStyle has locations in every state except Hawaii.
Shaun has just one location, the one he started nearly a decade ago out on North Tryon Street, called Da Lucky Spot.
That shop changed his life. In that shop he went from being known as a former felon to a community leader. In that shop he started handing out turkeys to needy families every Thanksgiving, bookbags to poor kids every August, coats to cold people every winter. In that shop he started after-school tutoring programs for kids in the neighborhood.
In that shop, too, he watched the coverage of riots in Ferguson, Missouri, following a police officer’s shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. In that shop in that moment he began to form the vision for Cops & Barbers, a program that became a national example of how to reinvent relationships between communities of color and the police.
And it was that shop, ultimately, that he decided to vacate this year to come here, to the Wilkinson Boulevard Walmart, to try something bigger.
“I want to open a Lucky Spot in every inner city in America,” he tells me after the ceremony. He’s already shed his suit coat. “I want it to be the standard of what community barbering is.”
In haze of Charlotte’s boom, with enormous companies like Lowe’s building skyscrapers in South End, Lucky’s barbershop has but eight chairs. Each of them, though, is influential. Some are designated for barber students who receive $6,000 scholarships toward barber school from the Cops & Barbers foundation Shaun started. He picks each student from a pool of applicants.
He knows how to choose the students who should be here, knows which ones will benefit the most, and knows what to tell them to keep them moving forward.
After all, he was one of them once.
The first business Shaun Corbett knew was weed. His first sale came when he was 12. When he learned to drive, he transported harder stuff up and down the East Coast.
His next adventure was jail time. He was 18 when he was arrested for carrying a concealed weapon, 19 when police caught him breaking and entering, and 21 the night he wobbled behind bars on DWI charges. In 2001, police stopped a car he was in and saw him stuffing a bag of cocaine in between the seats. He faced significant prison time for that, but the charges were dropped because the search was deemed illegal.
It was that dose of luck that shook him straight. That’s when, as he told me several years ago, “I decided I didn’t want to throw my life away.”
He looked for an honest job, but nobody would hire a former felon. So on one application, for Value City, he left the criminal history box blank and, wouldn’t you know, he landed an interview. He opened the interview by confessing his record to the hiring manager, and he got the job. He worked at Value City for more than two years, then went to Family Dollar, then enrolled in No Grease barber school.
When his friends called him Pizza Boy, he considered quitting. But for some reason he didn’t, and by 2006 he was a fulltime barber with his own chair. In 2010, he bought the shop where he worked on North Tryon Street.
He wanted it to be more than a place for haircuts. He wanted it to be a place where people gathered and felt safe. In the barber’s chair, he wanted customers to shed their uniforms and their colors. Soon he was cutting the hair of known drug dealers and police officers and several Carolina Panthers.
In 2014, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department needed help with relationships. Then-CMPD detective Garry McFadden, who’s now Mecklenburg County’s sheriff, presented Shaun with an idea to hold conversations between cops and communities that don’t trust them. Nobody could rally more people who didn’t trust police, McFadden figured, than the barber in one of Charlotte’s high-crime neighborhoods who just happens to be a former felon.
Shaun had personal reasons for wanting to join the partnership. His son was 18, the same age as Michael Brown. Shaun wanted to be able to tell his son how to interact with officers, but the truth was, he didn’t know how to do it himself.
In the first meetings of Cops & Barbers, Shaun somehow managed to do something few people can do — he kept the trust of teenagers in the Sugaw Creek neighborhood and earned the trust of soon-to-be police chief Kerr Putney. He could hold a room with either of them, no problem. He soon found out he could hold bigger rooms, too. The Obama administration invited him to the White House to present Cops & Barbers to groups from other cities.
I met him in 2015, when I was the editor of Charlotte magazine and we named him one of our Charlotteans of the Year. We became friends after that.
On September 21, 2016, the morning after a CMPD officer shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott, the morning after protesters took to the streets and set a fire on Interstate 85 and shattered windows of police cars and the Walmart in University City, the first place I went was Lucky’s barbershop. He had someone in his chair when I walked in.
He was more animated than I’ve ever seen him, the kind of frustrated a person reaches when he’s doubting whether any of his work has made a damn bit of difference. Of course he understood the protesters’ frustration. But …
“That Walmart where they broke the windows last night,” Lucky told me that morning, “that’s the same Walmart that gives us turkeys for our turkey drive every year.”
One year later, Michelle Belaire flew in from Walmart’s corporate headquarters in Arkansas.
She’s a senior director of community relations for the company, and was here to build relationships between the Charlotte-area stores and the neighborhoods that surround them.
The manager of the University City store told her about the barber named Lucky on North Tryon. She went to meet Shaun, but he wasn’t there. She left a card.
He called that night, hesitantly. I’ve witnessed Shaun go from smiling to skeptical in a blink numerous times, as he’s approached by outsiders who want in on the community he’s built.
“To me she was just another suit that comes for a photo op and disappears when it’s time to do the work,” he says.
They talked for two hours the next day. When she left, he said, “I’m gonna follow up with you. And you’ll understand that I am a man of my word. That’s the one thing I have.”
“Well,” Michelle said, “you’ve met your match.”
When she walked off the plane in Arkansas, she had a text message from him that said, “Did you land safely?”
They’ve talked nearly every week since. She invited him to Arkansas in February 2018 to a corporate meeting. He went with his wife, Nikki, and had a few minutes to talk to the people in suits. The barber with “Lucky” tattooed on his neck was straight and sincere, as ever.
“He blew everybody away,” Michelle tells me.
Later that night, he leaned over to her and said, “What would it take for me to have a barbershop inside of a Walmart?”
She sat back. It would take a lot.
A few months later, Michelle was in Charlotte at the Wilkinson Boulevard store when she noticed that the SmartStyle salon up front was closed, and the space was empty. She called Shaun.
“I want it,” he said.
He had to apply — and be denied — through the company’s formal tenant process. Michelle worked with him on countering the rejection.
He applied again, this time with endorsement letters from city leaders. Eventually, he had a lease agreement in front of him.
“The first time I dunked in a game in the 9th grade, I wanted to go to the barbershop,” Mecklenburg County sheriff’s officer Patrick Colson tells the crowd at the grand opening. “Unfortunately, in lots of neighborhoods, the barbershop is the only place for young black kids to go.”
Shaun wants Da Lucky Spot to continue to be that place, even though he’s moved. About 65 percent of his clients still come to him, about 15 minutes away. The old shop is closed; Shaun calls it the first chapter.
This has been big year on many fronts. In March, he was runner up in the SEED20 competition, which brought in $12,500. Then, at the grand opening last week, Michelle and Walmart present him with one of those big checks, this one with the figure $25,000 on it. The money will go to Cops & Barbers, to help put more young people through barber school.
Shaun looks out into the crowd that includes the mayor and the police chief and the sheriff and council members and county commissioners and thanks them.
“Give y’allselves a round of applause,” he says. “Everybody here has stories (about me), but the common denominator is I am who I say I am, and I do what I say I’m going to do. And I keep people around me that do the same thing.”
Then he tells them this is only the beginning.
“You’re going to be somewhere in Toledo, Ohio, and you’re gonna walk by and be like, ‘Man I was at the ribbon-cutting for the first one,'” he says. “But when you see that Lucky Spot Barbershop inside of Walmart, you’re going to know it’s going to have free tutoring, we’re gonna do bookbag drives, we’re gonna do Thanksgiving feedings, we’re gonna do turkey drives. We’re gonna do free haircuts, countless free haircuts.
“Every time that you see that name and that logo inside of Walmart you’re going to know what it stands for.”