Will Bailey is a man who harbors few illusions about his clientele. "Truthfully speaking," he offers, "most of my business is drug dealers and gangbangers. Thugs." This fact does not seem to bother Bailey. By his own account, Bailey made plenty of trouble himself back when he was coming up the hard way in Des Moines, Iowa.
As Bailey relates the details of his story--long stints in reform school, a drive-by incident in which his home "got shot up real bad," a hasty relocation to St. Paul--he seldom speaks above a loud whisper. His tone alternates between flat and merely cool. Every now and then, though, he flashes his dazzling smile. You have never seen such a dazzling smile. A thick swath of white gold runs across his front teeth and, if you look closely, you can count 21 diamonds encrusted in it. The diamonds spell out his name.
On this pleasant spring day, Bailey is manning the counter at his south Minneapolis shop, Midwest Goldfronts. He is dressed in oversized jeans and a knee-length, plain white T-shirt. His hair is shaved close to the skull. He has the words "white boy" tattooed in fancy script on his forearm. He figures it's been about eight years since he got his first grill--as the ornamental dental caps are referred to in his chosen trade.
Bailey, who is 27, acquired that metal at a dingy little strip mall during a road trip to Kansas City. Since then, he has swapped the yellow gold for white gold and cubic zirconium for diamonds. Practically from the moment he got his first grill, he has been thinking about getting into the racket. He even approached the proprietor of the Kansas City shop for advice, but rejected his would-be mentor's demand for thousands of dollars in teaching fees.
Eventually, Bailey acquired an instructional videotape that explained the fundamentals of the business and he discovered there really wasn't all that much to learn. This is especially true if, like Bailey, you are content to be a middleman. Mainly, he explains, you need to know the technique to properly take an impression of a person's bite. After that, it's a matter of shipping the mold to a jeweler (Bailey works with a New York outfit) and waiting for the fronts to arrive. Typically, it's a three-business-day proposition.
Tired of working construction, Bailey finally decided to take the plunge into entrepreneurship two years ago. He signed a lease for a one-room white brick storefront on the 3500 block of East Lake Street and printed up some flyers for distribution at nightclubs. Just like that, he was open for business.
The big glass window at Midwest Goldfronts is adorned with a picture of a smiling mouth with big, gold-capped teeth and a stenciled promise of "iced out jewelry" and "urban wear." Inside, the offerings are modest. There is a small amount of ancillary merchandise for sale: some T-shirts (Scarface, Richard Pryor, "Fuck Bush"), CDs, cell phones, and lots of hard candy. "The clothes ain't real profitable. One thing I've learned about clothes, it's just so slow, and you pay so much, you ain't going to make much money," Bailey explains. "So the main thing I focus on is the teeth." The display "teeth" are kept under a glass case with a disclaimer that reads, "This jewelry is for temporary use only. Not intended for dental use."
In fact, says Bailey, some of the more unscrupulous operators in the industry permanently install grills using a special cement. The practice is frowned upon--and for good reason. "A guy might spend $1,500 to have his grill put in permanently, and then a month later, he'd have to go to a real dentist and spend $2,500 to get it fixed," Bailey explains. "I've seen a lot of shitty work, where the tooth is rotten and black and crumbling."
That said, Bailey doesn't strictly adhere to the American Dental Association line when it comes to the advice he gives to customers. "I'm supposed to tell people not to eat or drink with fronts in, so if they swallow it, I won't be liable. But if you're out with a date, you ain't gonna want to take your teeth out in front of her. So you'll learn how to eat with them."
While the dental bling business is booming in some cities (Kansas City and Oakland are two of the best-known hotbeds), there is scant competition in the Twin Cities. As far as Bailey knows, he has just one rival in Minneapolis--and that guy works out of his home. Still, since he opened shop, business has ebbed and flowed. "It's all right. I'm trying not to give up on it," he shrugs. Sometimes he does 20 molds a week, sometimes just two. Customers typically pay a 50-percent up-front deposit--anywhere from $100 (for a single tooth) to $1,500 or so.
Bailey's biggest sale went to a St. Paul man who spent a total of some $3,000 on a grill that he constantly modified. While most of his customers tend to be young, occasionally middle-aged folks will come in looking for a substitute to traditional dentistry. "I've had women come in to get a price on a missing tooth," he says, "and they'll tell me that it's five times cheaper than a dentist."
At that, Bailey turns his attention to his only two customers of the day, a beefy man in his mid-20s and his girl. They're both looking for the same thing: one gold tooth.