The Barber Shop Next Door Offers a Nod to Old Salem | Monthly Winston-Salem

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By Tim Clodfelter

After several previous careers, John Mark Swink found he was happiest working from home.

Swink runs The Salon at Salem Cottage, a barbershop next to his home on West Clemmonsville Road, which was custom-made to his specifications – and in honor of his love of Old Salem’s architectural style.

Swink grew up in Rockingham in Richmond County and went to school here at UNC School of the Arts. And with the campus’ proximity to Old Salem, it became attached to that community, he says, due to “incredible craftsmanship, symmetry, simplicity and functionality.”

“They’re just beautiful houses, they’re very solid,” he says. “It has a sense of history and quality and execution and craftsmanship.”

His hairdressing career, he says, was “definitely through the back door.”

“I came to Winston-Salem in 1991,” he explains. “I was an opera performer major at the School of the Arts in their masters program. After that I moved to New York and worked in opera and musical theater for about 10 years. Then I had a weird viral sinus infection that crippled my chords partially, which kind of ended that part of my career.”

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By then he had already thought about leaving New York to return to his family and friends in North Carolina.

Since he had an affinity for Winston-Salem and still had friends from his art school days, he returned considering earning a doctorate in voice so he could teach. He taught for two years at High Point University, but could see that was not his calling – and that teaching voice with his vocal chords would be difficult.

“You kind of need to be able to make sounds to teach sounds,” he says.

He found himself at Parkland High School in 2006, teaching in its drama department for several years. He loved children and directing plays, he says, but “I didn’t like being a teacher and having to follow a curriculum.”

With his provisional license about to expire, he was looking for a new job when a friend suggested he consider working in a hair salon.

He attended beauty school for 10 months and started in October 2010 at Salon 939 on Burke Street in downtown Winston-Salem. He liked it but finally decided to start his own business and open a salon near his home.

The change came at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The salon was closed for two months, and I had two months in the most beautiful spring we’ve ever had,” he says. “I have a great back porch, and I sat on this swing and watched…I thought ‘I like being here, I don’t like leaving here, I like spending my time here.””

He liked to work at the downtown salon, but didn’t see the sunlight from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. some days.

“So I started turning it around in my head and thinking, OK, I’m paying this much for the rent for the stand, I wonder if I just built something, what would that mortgage be.”

He contacted Mike Wilkes of MW Construction, who had remodeled Swink’s house when he first returned to Winston-Salem and still did an outstanding job.

“We had been planning this project for several years, so he knew exactly what he wanted to do,” says Wilkes. “His house is a period home that has lots of detail, and he wanted to incorporate the same into his new barber shop/addition.”

They worked to blend Old Salem style and Pinehurst architecture into the project. Due to zoning, various permits and bureaucracy, they determined that he had to be tethered to his house by a roofline and meet size restrictions in order for him to run the business tied to his house. They worked hard to make sure that with all of this, it also matched the style of the original house.

“He always knows what he wants,” Wilkes says. “There are no details, no unturned pages… At the end of the day, I am very excited for him. He has a very short route – four stages – and he regularly texts me to tell me how how much he likes it.

“It’s the greatest satisfaction when I hear that from my clients.”

Elisa Radatovich, one of Swink’s clients for over seven years, says she is impressed with the results.

“It’s comfortable, it’s just amazing,” she says. “I love everything he’s done with it…it’s just beautiful, it’s a lot more personal and it’s a beautiful space to get your hair done. It feels like a spa.”

Swink is understandably proud of both his home’s renovations and the living room addition. It does such brisk business, he says, that it is not currently taking on any new clients; his schedule is filled with loyal customers, many of whom have followed him from downtown to his new location.

“My house is the child I don’t have to send to college,” he says. “That’s where my disposable income goes, that’s my house.”

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