“I have a son named Paul Jr. and a daughter named Robin. I’d like to see them keep [Genevas], and it’s going to be hard because of the gentrification that’s happened. As a matter of fact, if we had to rent this building we wouldn’t be here today. ”
— Pauk Knauls Sr.
Paul Knauls is emphatically a people person, a quality that has served him well in his 87 years, helping him become one of Portland’s most successful and iconic businessmen and earn the title of “Mayor of Northeast Portland.” If you were a Trail Blazer fan in the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s, you already know about Paul. You may have heard his infectious laugh or seen his age-defying good looks and dapper sense of style on OPB or PBS. Or maybe you’ve seen him around town; pretty much everyone wants Paul Knauls at their party. He’s a ball.
After Knauls’ 1953 discharge from military service in the Korean War and several years in Spokane, he came to Portland. He opened and managed nightlife destinations like Cotton Club on North Vancouver Avenue, Paul’s, and Geneva’s Restaurant and Lounge, and with his wife Geneva, started Geneva’s Shear Perfection salon, which still thrives today on Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.
Knauls’ career holds both cultural and historical significance. The Cotton Club hosted celebrity legends likes Sammy Davis Jr. and Big Mama Thornton. The business served both Blacks and whites, often with an early show for the white audience, and a late show for the Black folk. After Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, however, whites no longer wanted to come to the inner city, and Knauls sold the venue.
At Geneva’s Shear Perfection, Knauls handled all the handyman duties, while Geneva was the business matriarch. For many years her soft, capable hands were the only ones clients would trust to handle their hair. In 1970, Knauls visited the Portland Trail Blazers’ General Manager, Harry Glickman, and requested free tickets. After a few years of musical chairs, Knauls eventually got two seats in the front row for himself and Geneva—back in the days when seeing a black couple in the front row just wasn’t happening. Geneva also cut the hair of some Blazers players.
When Geneva Knauls passed in 2014, she was still widely popular and a beloved presence in the community. Geneva’s Shear Perfection—and Paul—still thrive today in her honor. In a reluctant nod to his advancing age, Knauls has (mostly) given up on his handyman tasks. Getting up can be “ugly,” he says. “Now I just answer the phone.”
Knauls says the most rewarding part of his job now is when clients come in to see him and include him in special moments. On a recent visit, Paul quickly whipped out his iPhone to show off a very tender photo of him holding newborn twins that a longtime client brought by just to see him.
“It’s just great being here and meeting people. Ladies walk in and they come give me a hug and a kiss. It’s tough work but somebody got to do it.”
The dual-sided business (half barber shop, half salon) has managed to survive and evolve through waves of gentrification, although Knauls regrets that many of his Black neighbors have left the area due to rising rents.
Looking at the shop’s photo-covered back wall (including photos of the Knauls with Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali, and James Avery sitting in a barber chair), it’s striking how many memories and friends the Knauls made in their 50-some years as business owners together. Paul’s gregarious and joyful personality ensured that his effect on the community went well beyond making a living or doing good business—it has been just plain good.
Storyteller: Jenni Moore | Photos: Intisar Abioto| Published: March 2018