Calgary at a Crossroads

Staring out the large windows at his downtown hair salon, Francis Byron says he can always spot the signs of a downturn.

"A lot of bad haircuts on the street, but some people are willing to live with it — and those that can't wear a hat."

As if on cue, he nods to a young man with a brush cut walking by his shop.

"That guy used to come here all the time, but now he cuts it at home himself." 

Byron says it all with a big smile. He hasn't lost his sense of humour despite a 30 per cent drop in business since the price of oil took a nosedive last year. 

His customers are cutting costs these days. Byron's street-front shop, Universal Hair Studio, sits on the west edge of downtown. At first glance, you take in racks of hair-care products, photos of smiling hair models and an organized clutter of combs, scissors and the tools of his trade. 

The place feels airy and bright because of those windows. They've framed street life in our city's core, through many boom and bust cycles. 

Window on our times

You can't miss the new office and condo tower going up across the street. A crane hoists a large bucket up to unfinished floors as a dozen construction workers scramble around the lower levels. It means work and a reminder that many are still betting on people and jobs downtown.

But there's no doubting Calgary's core has taken a hit. 

"People are now busy worrying about what to do next and how to do it and where to go, and because of that they seem to be isolated," he says as he dons a black smock.

Over the years, many loyal customers have settled into Byron's chairs. Some have become friends. He develops a feel for the mood of the city. 

It's the small stuff. Like the regular fire drills at the professional building across the street. Byron says he's noticed the crowd of office workers that gather outside shrinking each month. 

Then there are the people on the sidewalk just outside his windows. 

"People don't congregate anymore. People don't come together on the street corner, four or five guys standing there talking and laughing," he says. 

But people do talk when they sit on one of his salon chairs.

Aamna Zia is in for a cut and colour. She's a young financial analyst who works downtown. As Byron works on her hair, she talks about some of the changes she's seen since she moved into her apartment two years ago. 

Francis Byron

Francis Byron works on Aamna Zia's hair. Zia works as a financial analyst and thinks her job is safe. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

"Now I'm seeing in my building there's about five or six vacancies every month, where it used to be one vacancy every two months." 

Zia is grateful to have a job and thinks she'll survive for now, but there are also those who are struggling. 

"Some people come in here and they have tears in their eyes, right?" Byron says. "Guy comes in and sits down and says I don't have a job.

"They have absolutely no control over what's going to happen next and that's scary." 

Byron says he's also seeing more customers coming in for cuts as they prepare for job interviews. But many of them are having a hard time talking about jobs and job hunting.

"I'm very cognizant of that. When people come in here I wait for them to say, well, they're out of a job. Instead of me imposing on them. I wait until they start a conversation." 

Despite the drop in business, Byron says he's going to stick it out, even with all the new home barbers. Besides he's seen this all before and knows the worst will be over when he sees more of his neighbours talking and laughing again on that sidewalk in front of his salon.

"It's a tough grind, but people say it will get better. We've been here before and the truth is we survived then and we'll survive now to fight another day."


CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.