Student-barber cuts an entrepreneurial trail at Penn State Altoona

James Martinez is your basic college guy. He gets up, he goes to class, studies some, hangs with his friends some. But there is one thing that sets him apart and makes him just a little more unique -- he is a licensed barber.

The sophomore is studying finance and plans to attend University Park’s Smeal College of Business next year. He’s been around business, and hair, his whole life, as he was practically raised in his father’s barber shop in Brooklyn, N.Y.

“When I was born, my dad was still in high school. He’d been cutting hair pretty much his whole life, too; it was his occupation. In 1997 when he was 21, he opened his first shop with his business partner. It’s called Platinum Touch Barbershop, and he’s been there ever since.”

Martinez would head to the shop right after school and stay until closing, hanging out with his dad, listening to the chatter between customers and picking up skills. “That just turned into me learning. My dad never physically sat down and said ‘This is how you cut hair.’ I just picked it up by watching. And then I practiced on myself a couple of times and started practicing on my friends for free. Eventually I got good at it.”

When he was 14, Martinez became eligible for an apprentice license and his father signed off on it. All these years later, he’s still at it. “It’s really my first love, cutting hair. I love the idea behind it, how a haircut can transform somebody and make them excited about themselves.” Martinez has to renew that license every few years, but he doesn’t mind. “Anyone can buy a set of clippers and say they cut hair, but having a license gives you that actual certification. It’s a better representation of you as a barber.”

Martinez came to Penn State Altoona bringing with him his chair and all of his machines and tools. He cuts hair out of his apartment and typically sees between 30 and 45 customers a week. “It’s a good chance that anyone with a decent haircut around campus came to see me,” he said with a laugh. Known as “G,” because “it’s easier to remember,” Martinez said people around campus know who he is and recognize his face when they see him. Social media and word of mouth have helped get his name out among students. He gets a kick out of seeing comments on Facebook pages when someone is looking for a haircut. “There will be 20 or 30 comments, ‘go to G, that’s his name, here’s his number, this is where he lives,’ kind of thing. It’s great.”

Martinez hopes to branch out this year with a campus-wide event supporting THON. If he can secure insurance he wants to set up shop and cut the Four Diamonds logo and the FTK (For the Kids) letters into people’s hair. He’s always liked the idea of THON and wanted to help give to the cause in a creative way. “I want to help carry out the mission of THON and make my mark, too. If someone has a really cool haircut it can get onto the Internet or Instagram. It’s a good representation of THON, and I’ve basically turned a human into a walking advertisement.”

Although Martinez plans to forge a career in finance on Wall Street, he knows hair will continue to be a part of his life, probably on the side and as a hobby to keep him going after retirement. He’s grateful to his father for teaching him about entrepreneurship and being his own boss, and he looks back fondly on his time spent at Platinum Touch. “There were always so many ideas bouncing around, so much side talk. You can really learn a lot just by sitting in a barber shop. Different people are always coming through with their own opinions on things.” Martinez describes the shop as having a real family feel which was wonderful, but the best part was being with his father so much and feeling close to him. “It was a father-son relationship, but we were also like best friends. I would do everything with him.”

Martinez makes it home for a visit every two to three months and during breaks, heading straight to the barber shop as soon as he steps foot in New York, suitcases and all. “Pretty much everybody I care about is there. When I come back it’s like a big welcoming from the community.”

The closeness to his father remains, and Martinez enjoys the unique bond they continue to share. “He’s really proud. He’s definitely a Penn State parent, and I know he’s pleased to see me carry on this family tradition.”

Last Updated November 25, 2013