Quandray Robertson, owner of Q's Corner Barbershop, poses for a portrait in the attached boxing gym on Friday, March 12, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
A year ago, Quandray Robertson was left with a big empty space he didn’t know what to do with.
Before the Covid pandemic rearranged daily life, eight barbers cut hair at Q's Corner Barbershop, which Robertson has owned since 2005. As the pandemic first took hold in Oregon last year, Robertson (who goes by “Q”) said that none of the eight barbers opted to return to work at the shop.
“I was thinking, ‘Wow, this can't be it,’” Robertson recalled thinking. “What am I supposed to do?”
A year later, Robertson has remodeled the empty room into a gym with a set of barbell weights, punching bags and portraits of greats like George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. The garage at the building, located at 724 High St N.E., is being converted into a room for a boxing ring.
Robertson boxed professionally for 17 years as a welterweight, fighting on ESPN, Fox Sports and on pay-per-view events. Having long resisted becoming the “old guy in the gym,” Robertson, 48, said he was reluctant to make the change.
But for Robertson, Q's Corner Barbershop has also been a community hub and it gradually became clear to him it was time to adapt. There’s even more going on in the building and more planned.
KSOS, an online radio station that operates out of the building, broadcasts classic R&B and hip-hop with plans to expand programming. In the parking lot, Kenny Green cooks up platters of grilled salmon and ribs out of his food cart, Kenny’s Kitchen. A taco truck will be added later this spring and Robertson aims to host amateur boxing matches in the park this summer.
“There’s going to be a lot going on here this summer,” said Green, a native of Mississippi who hopes to use the food cart as a springboard to owning a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Growing up in Northeast Portland in the 1980s, Robertson recalled playing basketball at the Salvation Army on Sundays before heading to a neighborhood barbershop.
After picking up a hotlink and two-liter bottle of orange soda, Robertson would take a seat in the barbershop and listen. Even if he didn’t need a haircut, he still liked to hear the men tell stories while getting haircuts.
“I knew that a lot of them would just make stuff up just to sound cool or bigger,” said Robertson. “But it's just the entire ambiance of the barbershop that I just soaked up and I loved it.”
Years later, Robertson married a woman from Salem and moved to the city in 2004. A year later, he opened the barbershop.
Robertson recalled how his shop in Salem created a similar environment with judges, professors, police officers and people from all walks of life coming in for a haircut and to swap stories.
“You want to have that home away from home,” said Robertson. “You can just go sit down and everybody's welcome.”
Quandray Robertson, right, talks with Earl Drake in the recording studio attached to Q's Corner Barbershop on Friday, March 12, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
One of the shop’s regular customers is Earl Drake, a native of Montgomery, Alabama with a booming voice and background in media.
Drake (who goes by “Drako”) said he and an old friend from his days at Saddleback College in Southern California had talked years ago about starting their own radio station. But Drake said his friend died before they could pursue their dream.
Two years ago that dream was revived when Earl came in for a haircut and Robertson offered an empty room in the back of the barbershop to start the radio station.
“You know, there's not a whole lot of African-American publications or media outlets here,” he said. “With my media background, I thought it was very essential to get this going. And it’s all thanks to Q.”
KSOS is now the “Soul of Salem.” Sitting behind a microphone and mixing board next to a poster of Bob Marley, Drake said KSOS broadcasts online with a focus on 1980s and 1990s hip-hop and R&B. He hosts the mid-day slot, and returns in the evening to play slow jams.
“It's what we call baby-making music,” he said.
In the future, he said the station plans to allow college students to earn credits working at the station. It’ll also expand programming to include podcasts and other genres, such as drum and bass, a genre of electronic music marked by rapid breakbeats and heavy bass.
Robertson said that the newly remodeled gym will provide needed space for local youth boxing programs that have faced uncertainty under the pandemic.
The gym will also be available to adults who enjoy the sport and want a place to work out. He said trainers will come in throughout the day to work with people, but space will be limited because of the pandemic. If people are interested, he recommends they call at 503-364-5054 or come by to fill out paperwork.
Dan Dunn said that he worked with Robertson coaching boxing with the Wildcat Boxing program. The program was previously at the Church Street Boxing, which never reopened after the initial shutdown order last year and now it’ll have a home at the barbershop.
“He’s so passionate about helping youth, he really is,” said Dunn of Robertson.
Even though he was reluctant to reembrace the sport, he said when the barbershop emptied out, people started asking him about boxing. It was a sign for what he should do with the shop.
“God didn't bring me this far to leave me,” said Robertson. “I have the skill that I've been blessed with. Lots of folks have been asking. This is apparently what I'm supposed to be doing. So now let's just dive straight in.”
Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.
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