I'd been putting off getting a haircut for too long. I had that Bozo look -- bald men know what I'm talking about; it's our version of a bad hair day. I had braved the elements, shivering down four blocks from my office to a barbershop I had noticed a couple of days earlier. wib's, the sign said. I liked the name.
Wib's was crammed into a space between an alley and a donut shop. It was deep, not wide, with a front barely broad enough for a door and a window. My spirits rose as I felt the warm air inside. But as I looked around my mood went in the other direction. Wib was busy chopping on one customer and every seat save one was taken. Before I could turn and fight the wind head-on, a chorus rose from the waiting-room chairs: "You're next!" Seven men were seated around the room, but none of them was there for a haircut. I liked this place already. I've been going to Wib's ever since.
It must have been 1985 or so when the above scene occurred. My longtime barber Lester had died, leaving his shop to his niece, a sharp-tongued woman who wanted all us old customers to know that things were going to be different now. Lester had run too loose a shop. This thing about lolling in the barbershop, reading magazines, idling away the afternoon didn't sit with her. From now on there would be...appointments. One by one we slipped away. Some moved down the road to the Holiday Manor Barbershop. Others decided it would be more convenient to get a haircut near their work. Since I worked downtown, I didn't think it would be a problem adopting a new barber and a new shop. I'd done it before.
When my boyhood barber, Roy Lawson, had retired, I shifted two seats down to his son J. Fred. And when I went away to college, I used the campus barbershop. Then hippies landed in America and I didn't even need a barber for, oh, a decade or so. Girlfriends provided a trim when I needed it. It wasn't until I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in 1978 that I went back to a barbershop. I picked Lester's because it was a half mile from my house, on the way to work, and the price was right: four dollars when I started, if I remember correctly. Then Lester got sick.
Barbershops are personal. Men don't just change barbers at the drop of a hat, so to speak. If the barber doesn't die or we don't move, we'll stick it out, through thick and thin hair. Right now mine is thin, very thin. But Lester's niece had forced me to move. And I moved to Wib's.
Wib Scarboro's Barbershop on Fifth Street in downtown Louisville is a four-chair shop, room enough for four barbers. But it's down to one barber now: Wib. The other three chairs remain, a reminder of flusher times. On this Thursday in September regulars are perched in the two empty barber chairs. The waiting room is full, too, except for one solitary chair in the rear. A visitor would be tempted to turn around and head elsewhere rather than fight the wait.
Wib's Barbershop may be full, but no one's there for a haircut. They've come for the company, and it is available in abundance this afternoon. "Open the door to this barbershop and the lies just pour out onto the street," says Don Miller, a longtime customer. "This is the place for decent haircuts and great stories," he jokes. And the crowd whoops. "Wib doesn't give a haircut worth a damn but the conversation is wonderful," he adds.
Wib Scarboro is not one to take a punch without fighting back. "Don, I've seen better heads on cabbage....In fact, I've seen better heads on a ten-cent beer." And the group whoops some more.
Barbers have been around at least since the days of Samson. In fact the regulars at Wib's might say he's been around that long, too. Not quite. Wib Scarboro's shop has been in existence since 1880, in the same location since 1935. He's been cutting hair since the beginning of Ike's second term, 1956. That's a lot of years circling that chair. At first Wib worked for Clyde Hodges. "He was an old song-and-dance man. I worked for him for ten years, bought the place in '66, and he worked for me for ten years!"
Ben Bodie, an industrial fan salesman from South Carolina, is in the chair at Wib's. He has been directed to the place from the Delta Lounge, a tavern around the corner. Bodie is on a lifelong quest to find America's best haircut. "Last month I got one in Detroit. Before that San Francisco." And how does Wib compare? "This young man's got a steady hand and he knows what he's doing." The gang suggests Wib's steady hand is the product of a refreshing beverage. Bodie appreciates the humor but he wants everybody to know that Wib knows his stuff. "I guess the next time I need a haircut I'm gonna have to figure out a route back through Louisville."
School is letting out and young boys are lining up along the walls in the barbershops around town. Except at Wib Scarboro's. Wib is putting his clippers back in the drawer. He says he has the best hours of any barber cutting hair: "Monday through Friday eight to two, or whenever I get tired. Or someone wants to go fishing. Or squirrel hunting."
I've visited some great barbershops over the past two years while researching this book: Three Brothers Barbershop in Stamford, Connecticut; Vernon Winfrey's Barbershop in Nashville, Tennessee; Hugh Sample's Barbershop in Boomer, West Virginia. I've been in more than three hundred total. I couldn't get that many haircuts in a year, of course, so sometimes I'd get a shave. Sometimes I'd just sit and visit. They allow that.
Floyd's City Barbershop in Mount Airy, North Carolina, is like every other barbershop -- the row of chairs, the facing mirrors, the line of barbers in white smocks. The whir of electric clippers competes with the chattering on the AM radio, except that they seem to complement each other. The Polaroids on the wall, the shoeshine stand in the back, the music on the radio. Every barbershop is alike. And yet each is unique. In one the radio may be blaring stock-car racing, in another Rush Limbaugh. The smell of one leans toward lilac; another smells more woodsy. But what really sets apart each barbershop is the swirl of people. Some barbershops attract the politicos and conversation steers toward campaigns and electioneering. Another draws the NASCAR crowd: the radio is a jumble of screaming announcers and buzzing high-performance motors. Here the talk is baseball; there it's hunting. But it's always interesting. It's life in the neighborhood.
What makes for a great barbershop? To begin with, it can't be called a style shop. In fact, if it's called a style shop, I won't go in. I don't want a hairstyle. I want a haircut. But it goes beyond that. If it's called a style shop, it's trying to be something other than a barbershop. And I don't want that. I want a barbershop, a community of men, where smoking is still accepted, even applauded, even though I don't smoke. Where the radio plays loudly with the sounds of a sports announcer. And where the currency is talk. You learn more in the barbershop than you ever learn in the newspaper. The barbershop is the community center in many places. That community may be an entire small town or a neighborhood. Or it may just be a community of like-minded folks. Give me an old-fashioned barbershop any day (except Sundays and Mondays, of course. All barbershops are closed Sundays and Mondays). The barbershop of my childhood differed not one iota from Wib's. Some things never change.
You can tell a lot from the name. A great barbershop has somebody's name on it. Wib's Barbershop just sounds like a great place to get a haircut. Wib presides over a daily gathering of lawyers and politicos in his shop across the street from the courthouse. The place is full of men just hanging out, debating the latest courthouse scandal and discussing the new server down at the Delta Lounge. That's a barbershop. And the good news is there are thousands of them still out there. Supercuts, Fantastic Sam's, and the chain shops haven't put all the old barbers out of business. Not like hippie hairstyles did back in the sixties and seventies. As eighty-eight-year-old West Virginia barber Hugh Samples told me when I eased into his chair, "Hair's always gonna grow. And somebody's gonna have to cut it. Might as well be me."
When I began this book, I thought I was doing a book about barbershops. What I soon discovered was that I was really doing a book about barbers. Barbers make the barbershops. Like barbecue joints they don't do well as franchises. Folks want idiosyncrasy in a barbershop and a barbecue joint. So no two barbershops are alike because no two barbers are alike.
Oh, and I have learned a ton. My barber, Wib Scarboro, taught me how a barbershop works. San Jose barber Frank Chirco taught me the history of barbering. And Ohio barber Ed Jeffers taught me a lot of new barber jokes.
Everything I've learned, every story I've heard, every joke I've laughed at in my research has lead me back to one thing: my own barber history.
Ask ten men to name the barber who gave them their first haircut. Then ask the same ten men to name their childhood doctor. I'll bet you more can name the barber than the doctor. Roy Lawson gave me my first haircut -- sat me up on a little board balanced on the chair arms. I don't remember that very first haircut; I was much too young. But because I was the firstborn, the occasion was duly recorded by my mother in my baby book, Our Baby -- The First Five Years, a Whitman Publishing scrapbook with a pink and blue cover adorned with a drawing of the ugliest baby you have ever seen.
My first haircut, as recorded on page nineteen, was on August 5, 1948, my first birthday. My mother wrote, "He was a very good boy while having his hair cut. Laughed part of the time and looked at a magazine."
On the first haircut page are before and after photos along with a lock of my hair: a dirty blond color that I haven't seen on my head since. In the before photo my hair is parted at the left crest and combed straight over in the style of the day. In the after photo my hair is sheared close on the sides and piled up on top in a style I also haven't seen since. It looks like a jelly roll and I'm sure my mother cried all night about it.
That first haircut was at Sword's Barbershop, a half block from my house. Most neighborhoods had a neighborhood barbershop in the forties and mine was no different. Sword was Al Sword, a stubby bald man who was never without his white smock shirt. But I got my first haircut from the man at the second chair, a swarthy fellow, thick of build but not fat. His name was Roy Lawson, and if I were to show you a picture of him, you would look at his thick shock of coal black hair, lacquered and sculpted, and say, "He's a preacher, isn't he?" And you'd be right. Roy Lawson was a Free Will Baptist preacher. He cut hair at Sword's Tuesday through Saturday and preached on Sunday. For the first couple of hundred haircuts -- I went every other week in the fifties; everybody did -- my father would lift me up onto a board that Mr. Lawson positioned across the arms of his barber chair. That put my head at his chin level and made it easier for him to get my sideburns straight. By the time I started going to the barbershop electric clippers were the norm. I never saw a barber use hand clippers then, although I have seen them since. My barber, Wib Scarboro, says his daddy used to cut his hair with hand shears. "He had to squeeze them to cut. They never were sharp enough and I tell you I think he pulled as much of my hair out as he cut."
Sword's was a stock-car barbershop, which meant that no matter what was happening in the outside world -- Ike was raising taxes, Governor Clement was speaking at the Democratic convention -- the talk at Sword's was about stock-car racing. I grew up in east Tennessee, just a skip over the mountain from the moonshine country of western North Carolina immortalized in the Robert Mitchum movie Thunder Road. Dirt tracks were everywhere. Men in New York may have idolized DiMaggio, but men in east Tennessee idolized Junior Johnson and Fireball Roberts, two of the top drivers on the nascent NASCAR circuit. Johnson was from the Asheville, North Carolina, area and became a stock-car driver after a successful career running moonshine and outrunning highway patrolmen. He was the hero at Sword's. I can remember on occasion a stranger would wander in, hear the buzz of stock-car racing on the portable radio, and announce his partiality to Fireball Roberts. The hum of the clippers would come to a stop while one or another of Sword's minions spoke his peace on Junior Johnson's side.
If you were to blindfold me today, spin me around five times, and lead me into Sword's Barbershop, I could tell you exactly where we were; I wouldn't need a single visual clue. I could even tell you with earplugs in. Sword's smelled like Sword's. And it was the most inviting smell of my childhood short of the candy counter at JCPenney. I don't think you could recreate that smell today -- you couldn't find the ingredients. Who sells hair tonic? The first aroma when you hit the door was light and fresh but not flowery -- the powder, my barber Wib speculates. Then a pungent floral smell would enter your nose. Maybe Lucky Tiger, says Wib, the most popular hair tonic of the fifties. There was also a woodsy note. After asking what a woodsy note is, Wib indicates there are lots of woodsy notes in witch hazel. By the time you reached your chair, there was also a bit of an electric smell mixed in. Somebody had a short in their clippers, says Wib.
Finally, as a young haircut customer, the big day came, and a proud day it was. "That was the day you grew up," says Bruce Haney, a friend since grade school. What transpired was that the barber finally said, "Aaa, you don't need that board no more," and sat you down on the lush upholstered seat of the barber chair. It was only then that you realized that the board was a board -- hard and uncomfortable. The seat -- now that was a seat, inviting and surrounding. Going to school is a big step in any kid's life. But moving from the board to the seat in the barbershop -- that's the first rite of passage.
Mr. Sword retired sometime in the late fifties and the guy who bought his store turned it into a shoe repair shop. Mr. Lawson and the remaining barbers migrated across the street into a storefront in the corner slot of Brickey's Motel.
I liked the move. I got to keep my regular barber and I no longer had to cross the street. The new shop was just three doors down from my house, a thirty-second bike ride. Mr. Lawson took the first chair -- meaning it would be Lawson's Barbershop -- with Virgil Crawford at the center chair and J. Fred Lawson, Roy Lawson's beefy, baldheaded son, at the back chair.
Mr. Lawson brought innovation to our neighborhood barbershop, installing a TV so that if he tilted your head just right, you could watch the ball game on Saturday afternoon while he buzzed off your hair.
The first big shock of my early adolescence came when I was twelve and Mr. Lawson announced to me one Saturday afternoon that he was retiring. He was the only barber I had ever had. He knew my cowlick like it was his own. He knew just where to clip my front lock so that it wouldn't curl like a sissy's. He was turning me over to J. Fred, he said. I still remember my thought: J. Fred is bald.
I had watched J. Fred out of the corner of my eye for several years and I wasn't sure I was ready to move two seats down. But I didn't have a choice. I couldn't bear the thought of changing barbershops, too. I would move two seats down.
Hello, J. Fred.
It turned out I liked J. Fred. He was nothing like his dad, and it wasn't just the lack of hair. No, J. Fred cussed. Mr. Lawson was a preacher, a friendly, easygoing Baptist preacher. Profanity never crossed his lips. If his razor slipped and nicked his finger, it was, "My land!" If J. Fred pinched his finger in the dusting powder drawer, it was a string of expletives that began with #!$#! and ended with a whole lot worse. J. Fred liked baseball, not stock-car racing; Pepsi instead of RC; and dirty jokes better than anything. And he cut my hair just like his father had, with a firm but gentle touch.
I hadn't been with J. Fred more than a couple of months when he asked me one day, "Have you thought about a new haircut?" No, I hadn't. I had worn my hair in an early Elvis cut since I was one year old. My hair was "short on the sides, medium on top and leave the sideburns."
"Lots of the boys are wearing these flat tops," J. Fred said. I was preparing to enter junior high and I was starting to notice girls; I was ready. "Go for it," I said. Or the 1959 equivalent.
My mother cried that night. Something about her baby.
My barbershop adventure had begun. And so begins ours....
The reason I went to my barbershop wasn't because J. Fred gave such good haircuts -- it isn't rocket science -- but because I was comfortable there. So when I set out early in 1999 researching this book, I wasn't looking for the guy who had won the National Haircutting Championship (not that there is one). I was looking for a place where I could sit down in the waiting area, listen to some great conversation, maybe even learn a little about the local community.
I tried for the old geographic spread. I got a shave from Big Bob in Fort Lauderdale. I chatted up the gang at Three Barbers in Stamford, Connecticut. I got a haircut in the far northeast corner of Tennessee at Claude Russell's and in the far southwest corner at Jim's in downtown Memphis.
I talked barbering with Jimmy Knauss, head of the California Barber Board, and Ken Shaddy, a Hall of Fame barber who got his start in the Big Sky country of Idaho.
Floyd gave me a haircut in Georgia, North Carolina, and West Virginia.
I got a trim from a guy who started cutting hair when Herbert Hoover was president. And I learned about haircut competitions from a kid who was born shortly after Reagan was elected.
I even visited the Barbershop Museum and Barber Hall of Fame in Ohio.r
I now know everything about barbering except how to cut hair. And I didn't want to learn that anyway. If I did, I would have gone to barber college.
What I did discover is that barbers are the same all over. Sure, Martino at Three Barbers in Connecticut is a little imperfect with his English, despite the fact that he came over from Italy three decades ago. But that doesn't keep him from participating in the insult-fests that go on all day long in his barbershop. When I asked Nick, the lead barber at Three Barbers, if Martino was his brother, he replied, "No, he's my grandfather." Martino immediately let out with a wail. "His grandfather! I'm-a his nephew."
In visiting three hundred and some barbershops, I never felt unwelcome or uncomfortable. A few were a bit sterile, and by that I mean that they were devoid of personality; but there are people who don't want lively conversation with their haircut. Some men don't want to be bothered -- just shave and shut up.
Not all barbers are extroverts either. There are -- and this may be hard to believe -- quiet barbers.
I found it all in my odyssey. In one shop all the spare chairs were occupied by vagrants from the neighborhood. In another the spare chair was filled by a giant furry sleeping cat.
In one neighborhood shop a young boy helped me off with my coat and hung it up. In another a kid dusted me off when I was finished.
Some barbers asked if I wanted my eyebrows clipped. Others did it without asking. A few barbers shaved my neck with a straight razor and shaving cream; most trimmed with an electric clipper. Two barbers even clipped my nose hairs.
I wasn't always entertained or enlightened but there wasn't a single shop that I didn't leave feeling fresher than when I went in. And I smelled that way, too, thanks to an assortment of bottled potions and bracers.
So hop in the car with me, slick back your hair, and let's head out on a barbershop odyssey.
And don't forget to pack your comb.
Copyright © 2001 by Vince Staten
In Search of America's Great Barbershops
Do Bald Men Get Half-Price Haircuts?
In Search of America's Great Barbershops
Staten visited more than three hundred barbershops, in towns ranging from Chowchilla, California, to Mount Airy, North Carolina. Displaying a great ear for dialogue, he re-creates the banter in a family-run Italian shop in Louisville, the relaxed jokes shared at an African-American barber's in a quiet neighborhood in Nashville, and the familiar conversations about local politics, the new baseball coach, and the meaning of life that make it clear why the barbershop is the communications hub of so many communities. In a wonderfully entertaining exploration of the history, secrets, and social contributions of barbershop culture, he provides answers to such pressing questions as: What's in those hair tonics anyway? Why are the stripes on the barber pole red and white? Why not a barbershop trio?
As in his earlier fascinating tours through the hardware store and the phar-macy, Staten combines a highly original sense of humor with a keen eye for telling detail. With Do Bald Men Get Half-Price Haircuts? he treats readers to an unusual, warmly nostalgic, and often hilarious tour of an enduring corner of American popular culture.