Written by Jim Murphy | Photos by Anthony Harden
Traditional barber shops have survived the lean, long-haired era of the ‘70s and the all-salon rage of the ‘90s. In Western North Carolina in 2019, they’re thriving.
Barbers got a bad rap in the Bible.
When Delilah gave Sampson that fateful haircut, she turned him into a helpless weakling and set in motion a cataclysmic chain of events that began with the destruction of the Philistine temple and continued for a couple of years, with the local men saying something to the effect of, “Get away from me with them scissors!” But their hair kept growing, and pretty soon it was getting in their eyes and preventing them from doing anything productive. So, they reluctantly submitted themselves to a fashionable trim—and the barbers were back in business.
And, yes, there were real barbers back in Sampson’s time. In fact, the word barber comes from the Latin, barba, meaning beard, and records dating back far as 3500 BC list barbers as the world’s second oldest profession—and the oldest legal one.
Since that Delilah fiasco, barbers have been thriving. Here in North Carolina there are about 7,000 to 8,000 licensed barbers working in no fewer than 2,500 shops, according to Dennis Seavers, executive director of the NC Board of Barber Examiners. A web search suggests close to a thousand of those barbers are working in the 16 counties of Western North Carolina.
One of the oldest is in Asheville, where Stanley Rice has been cutting hair for 65 years. “I’m the oldest of five boys,” he says, “And I was cutting my brothers’ hair when I was 13 years old.” Now, at age 78, he still works full-time at his Oakley shop on Old Fairview Road. He was born in Madison County and says, “I knew there had to be something better than farming. I would have liked to be a park ranger, but I ended up a barber.” He joined the Navy, where “aboard ship my best friend was the barber.” He picked up the trade and eventually became the barber for his Seabee battalion. The long-ago sailor’s shop walls are covered with hundreds of baseball style caps, each designating a particular naval ship. And his black shoes reveal a gleaming spit shine. Old Navy habits die hard.
After all those years, standing with his arms raised in a somewhat awkward position and trying to ignore the aches and pains that come with the job, what keeps him going?
“I guess I like people.”
Stanley launches into a discourse on the quality and value of barber shop conversation. “Now, this shop here, you’re likely to hear any topic. But religion and politics, that’s a danger point. If that comes up, just don’t say nothin’. Unless you know everybody’s on the same side you’re on.” He grins. “I’m a pretty good judge of people,” he says. “You talk to somebody a few minutes, you can figure him out. After all these years, I’ve had a lot of practice.”
Stanley slides into reminiscing ode, recalling some of his unusual experiences. “Back in the 1970s, some judges didn’t like young men coming before them with long hair. I’ve gone to the jail to cut hair for the son of one of my customers. And I’ve cut hair in just about all the local funeral homes.”
A haircut at Stanley’s shop costs $12. Even if he could do 10 to 12 cuts a day, after he pays his shop rent and other bills, the price would seem to leave him with only a small profit. “You’ve got to be conservative with your money,” he admits. But then he turns it around. “I’ve done OK in barbering. I’ve got a nice home, three cars…” He points to a picture on the wall. “That’s my baby.” It’s a 1998 Corvette, “with only 14,000 miles.”
Stanley has just finished a haircut for a customer who has been coming to Stanley since the 1990s. Stanley relaxes into his barber chair and recalls the lean years in the 1970s, when long hair was in style, and many young men considered haircuts a waste of time and money.
“That was a tough time,” he admits, holding up a hand with his fingers spread. “I had days when I did less than five haircuts.” He takes a long breath. “But never a day when I didn’t do any.”
Oakley Barber Shop, where Stanley works, is reminiscent of those old-time barber shops, where photographs compete for wall space with business cards and—in this case—all those naval hats. The shop also includes one item that Stanley believes might have historical significance. A Koken brand barber chair, dating from the early 1900s, was among the first models to have a hydraulic mechanism to raise and lower the seat. In earlier models, the barber had to spin the chair—and the customer—in circles to change the seat elevation. Stanley grows animated as he indicates the round leather seat of his chair to establish its vintage status. He points out that later chairs have square seats. He believes this chair might have come from the Biltmore estate and that George Vanderbilt, himself, might have sat in it to get a trim.
OLD BARBER JOKE:
I asked the barber when would be the best time to bring in my two-year-old son.
He answered, “When he’s four.”
At the opposite end of the barber shop style spectrum is the Local Barber and Tap on Walnut Street in downtown Asheville. Featuring a five-stool beer bar, this shop takes barbering to a new niche. The vibe here is contempo-cool: brightly lit with a large cartoon mural dominating one wall, a vintage shoeshine chair and old-fashioned instrument cabinet as décor pieces, four working barber chairs, three customers waiting, and the owner, Jordan Stolte, working in a private room beyond the bar. A wall clock is stopped at 5:00, calling to mind the cocktail-hour refrain: It must be five o’clock somewhere.
Jordan describes his becoming a barber as “mostly plan B. I was going to school for graphic design, but I got tired of computers. My family was good friends with the neighborhood barber. They pushed me, and I finally went for it.”
Jordan and his wife arrived in Asheville from Ann Arbor, Michigan, seven years ago. (“We got tired of the cold winters.”) He worked in the Grove Arcade shop until he saw the opportunity to create a niche with a combination “beer-bar-ber” shop: “The timing was right. I knew it was going to do well. I knew the business was there.” He opened in 2015, and as he now notes, “We’re doing better than I expected. The town is growing like crazy. People find us.”
His only advertising is on social media sites such as Instagram and Facebook, yet he’s been successful enough to raise his prices. “We started doing $20 haircuts, but recently raised it to $30. If you go to a salon, a men’s haircut is $30 or even more. But it was kind of scary when we raised the price. We were afraid we might alienate some people.”
His shop has become popular, but the gimmick—the niche—is the beer bar.
“We don’t make a lot of money off the beer,” he says. “But that gets people in the door. I would say after 3PM, maybe 25 to 30 percent of the customers have a beer.” (And we must add an editorial note to customers: If you’re inclined to buy your barber a beer, wait until after he finishes cutting your hair. Especially if you’re also getting a shave.)
At age 40, Jordan is beginning to feel the physical effects of his trade. “Standing all day can be hard on your body,” he admits, “but still, I like it better than sitting all day.” And he says it’s a job that will never disappear. “It’s one of those old-time trades that the Internet can’t replace. You might never get rich, but you’ll never be poor. If you’re a good barber and you like talking to people, you’ll always be busy.”
Jordan says one of his biggest hurdles was finding barbers to staff his shop. He says, “There are plenty of cosmetologists,” but not as many who are trained to cut men’s hair.
To get a state license, a barber must complete 1,528 hours of class time in a barber college. Dennis Seavers, at the North Carolina Board of Barber Examiners, says there are 35 to 40 barber colleges in the state, but none in Western North Carolina. However, McDowell Community College is apparently planning to add barbering to its curriculum. Seavers notes that the board has not received an application yet from McDowell—a source on campus indicated the barber curriculum must wait for construction of a new building—but says a barber course at McDowell would be a welcome addition for the western part of the state.
On the matter of the barber’s license, Seavers says the purpose is to assure that barbers “operate safely with regard to sanitary and health considerations.” He cites the need for clean tools, careful use of chemicals such as barbicide, sterilizing equipment, hair straightener, or dye. “The license requirement is meant to limit the threat of disease,” he says. Licenses, as he puts it, “don’t exist to assure good haircuts.”
The board handled 48 complaints statewide in fiscal 2018, and Seavers says the two most common were for an unlicensed or dirty shop. Civil penalties can range from $50 to $500 or more. “And,” he says, “in some rare cases we can revoke a license.” Those stronger penalties would be imposed for cases such as a shop with no running water or other, similarly rare, violations. He adds one more: “It’s a misdemeanor to operate without a license.”
OLD BARBER JOKE:
Q: If having your tonsils removed is a tonsillectomy, and having your appendix removed is an appendectomy, what is it called when you have a growth removed from your head?
A: A haircut.
Barbers agree that what they enjoy about the job is the people they meet and the conversations they have. Indeed, the barber shop has evolved into a neighborhood conversation pit, but its beginnings stretch a long way from a friendly chat. In those early centuries, superstition was a central ingredient of all knowledge, and one widespread belief was that evil spirits could enter a body through the hair. Cutting the hair was seen as a way to drive out them out, giving a certain religious element to the practice—and giving the barber status as barber-priest. In that dual role, he also performed ceremonies such as marriage and baptism. During these rituals, the barber would not cut hair until the religious ritual had been completed. Then, he would cut the hair and tie it back so no evil spirits could enter and no good spirits escape.
During the middle ages, they were known as barber surgeons because, in addition to a haircut and a shave, they performed what are now medical procedures, such as extracting teeth or even amputating limbs. This was an era when state-of-the-art medicine included “bleeding”—draining some of a patient’s blood to rid him of an infection.
It was this dimension of the barber’s trade that produced one of our most durable iconic symbols: the barber pole.
The red and white spiral stripes date back to that era, representing the blood-stained rags from a bleeding operation blowing in the breeze to dry. The original poles were simple shafts of wood painted with the red and white stripes, but with the advent of electricity, the “poles” morphed into glass tubes with interior lighting and a motorized rotating motion to enhance the spiral illusion. Nowadays, the barber pole is simply an identifying totem, but its history tells a far more complicated (and less pleasant) story.
Barbers do not share in the belief that different races require different hair cutting techniques. They tend to agree that “white” hair and “black” hair gets cut the same way. “It all falls on the floor,” no matter the color of the customer, says Baron Kinkaid, a barber at Smooth’s DO Drop In on Eagle St., where the clientele is mostly African-American.
If barber shops have become local conversation arenas, Smooth’s DO Drop In is a full-blown Olympic stadium. One day recently, a high-volume debate questioned the relative basketball abilities of Julius Erving and Michael Jordan. Interrupted by bursts of laughter and punctuated by interruptions from other customers, Baron faced off against a patron in a duel that eventually morphed into an imaginary game between their own personal all-time all-star teams. Meanwhile, Baron continued to work on the customer in his chair, who was enjoying the verbal confrontation as much as all the others.
After the haircut, Baron said the jive is part of his day. “I like trash talking. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. It’s a place to hang out. Get a haircut.”
As for his origins as a barber? “It’s what came natural. I started cutting my father’s hair when I was 14. It was an outlet for my expression.”
Baron has been a barber for 25 years, and he admits the physical strain of the job. “Legs, back, arms, elbows. It gets to you. But I love it. I get to interact with people, and I don’t have to answer to a boss. I’m a free-spirited person.”
A haircut costs $18, and the shop stays busy. For Baron, the joy of the job is “knowing the individual in the chair. Every day someone comes in with a different story. Just depends on the day. And I love hearing all of it. If I’m entitled to put my hands on your head, I should know what’s in your head.”
The barbers Capital at Play spoke with all agreed that they enjoy their jobs for two reasons: good conversation and independence.
At the Biltmore Plaza Barber Shop in Biltmore Village in Asheville, owner Steven Isaac summed up both benefits: “The social aspect is worth more than all the money I’ve ever made. It’s like coming to work and hangin’ with your best friends.” And “I like working for myself; hate having a boss man.”
The shop has been a neighborhood fixture for more than 30 years, and Steven bought it about a year and a half ago. “I inherited some customers when I bought the place,” he says, and a customer sitting in his chair quickly adds, “He’s a character and his predecessors were characters.”
The shop has an upscale look with three chairs, black-and-white flooring, and a pinball machine in a corner. “It’s exactly what I was looking for,” he says. A haircut costs $20, and Steven tries to send his customers away with a good cut and a satisfied look. “I definitely ask them what they want just to make sure I’m at one with them. Everybody’s different.”
Like many of his colleagues, Steven began cutting hair long before he became a professional. “I started cutting my own hair when I was 14. I still do it, still cut my own hair. I was 23 when I started thinking about going to barber school. I found the thing I wanted to do the rest of my life. It’s all I want to do.”
OLD BARBER JOKE:
A barber shop put up a sign attacking a fancy salon down the block. The sign said, “Why pay $20? We cut hair for $2.”
The salon responded with a sign saying, “We repair $2 haircuts.”
Another longtime barber institution sits on Merrimon Avenue in north Asheville, where a sign announces Joe King’s Barber Shop. The sign is a bit of a landmark, and it’s somewhat inaccurate: Joe King died 13 years ago, although the person who bought the business, Susan Hill, chose to retain the name precisely because it was so well known. “I also chose to keep our prices low, so everyone can look good!” says Hill. “I have done hair for 46 years— Billy Graham, Harry Anderson, to name a few, have been among my clients—and being a native of Asheville, I can remember men and boys lined up out the door for haircuts in the ‘60s.”
When Capital at Play visited the barber shop Linda Spears—who Hill says was her very first employee—was the only barber on duty. Linda had a customer in the chair, who was wondering why his haircut would cost $15 and a beard trim only $8 “when I have more hair on my face than on my head.” A longtime customer, he and Linda shared the banter of old friends—with a lot of loud laughter. Linda has been a barber for 36 years. “I love it. It’s the best job. I talk to people all day. I love their stories.” Pressed to relate some of those stories, Linda takes a long breath, scanning her memory for a good one. Finally, “I had a female customer and she had babies for hire.” She nodded to affirm her memory. “Couples would hire her to have their baby, and she would go around the country, live with the couple and have their baby. She had five babies.”
Warming to the topic, she goes on. “I had one customer who came back several times and we’d talk all the time, and he was always talking about movies, and then I found out that he was a movie producer. Just the people that you get to meet.”
The shop features poster-size photos of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean, and a sign proclaims an extra charge for “whining.” Soft music provides background for the conversation. Linda says her customers come from as far as Brevard and Marion. Most of them are a joy, she says, but “You always have some customers that are real nasty. It’s a low percentage. But you always get the one who doesn’t like anything you do. Nothing’s ever good enough, but they always come back and torment you again and again.”
The Tri-City Barber Shop in Weaverville is only a few miles from Merrimon Avenue, but the feel of the place is of another world. Owner Mitchell Willis and Jerry Angel work at adjoining chairs that always seem to be busy while as many as four or five customers wait their turn. They estimate they have about 500 regular customers, ranging from locals they’ve known since childhood to newcomers whose accents identify them as outlanders.
A haircut costs $14, but the main event is often the conversation, which ranges from sports to weather to the daily news headlines and personal stories. “Hunters and fishermen come in with their stories—they just keep you listening,” Mitchell says. “What was their big catch or big kill? We see hundreds of interesting people.”
Part-time barbers occupy three more chairs, but Tri City is clearly Mitchell and Jerry’s show. They work 10 hours a day, three days a week, and 12 hours the other two. Many of their customers are multi-generational families. On the day we visited, Jerry was cutting hair for a five-year-old, and the banter ran to the difference between the youngster’s hair and his grandfather’s.
After 54 years cutting hair, Jerry has no complaints. “Nothing hurts,” he says, dismissing the idea of physical stress. However, Mitchell, now in his 15th year as a barber, acknowledges the impact. Do the long days leave him exhausted? “Sometimes. It depends on how good the conversation goes. I do frequent a chiropractor to help with all the compression I put on my spine and my joints.”
Jerry’s journey to barbering was a straight line. “I got a haircut one day and I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I was probably a senior in high school.”
Mitchell took a more circuitous route. “I was raised in the building industry, and my dad was pushing me to get something to fall back on. My grandfather was a barber, so that’s what planted the seed.” But he stops short of saying he’s committed to it as a lifetime career. “I could take or leave the work of it. But I’m very content with where I’m at, with what I’m doing. You can be content man, and that’s enough.”
As for Jerry, “I’m committed,” he vows, drawing a laugh from the customers. What would he do if he weren’t a barber? “I don’t have a clue. I never thought about it. I’ll be here until I can’t anymore. I’ve got to have something to do.”
The old-fashioned barber has survived the long-hair era of the ‘70s and the salon rage of the ‘90s. Hair and beards continued to grow, barbers continued to trim and shave—and as the trade has adapted, the essentials have remained the same.
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