Long before there were any beauty salons on the Island, there were Barbershops. Some were family endeavors, like the one that my daddy’s Uncle Danky ran from inside his home. But there were at least three barbers who had dedicated shops that included a barber pole beside the front door.
Starling Lewis (b. 1898) had a business next door to his home, and beside his brother Carl’s store. Before Paul Wade opened his shop across from the postoffice in the mid 1960s, Starling’s was the closest to our house. He also offered the cheapest cut, 75¢ when I was a boy. Sometimes Daddy would take my brother, Telford, and me there on a Saturday evening. Within less than an hour we would be headed home, with our “ear’s lowered,” and what I remember most of all, a very sore and stiff neck. Starling’s way of cutting hair was to force your head down almost to a 90° angle, while he pressed his clippers up and down your neck and around your ears. By the time he finished and had whisked away the towel on your shoulders, you could hardly stand or walk upright. Eventually Teff and I would plead with our father not to make us “go to Starling’s.”
So it was that after that and until Paul Wade’s opened up, getting a haircut meant going to “Louie’s.” Louie Guthrie’s (b. 1904) barbershop was a small wooden hut, no more than two hundred square feet, that was past our church but before the schoolhouse — just beyond Myrtle’s café. Because of all that a barbershop was at that time, Louie’s was a nerve center of the community. Especially on Saturday mornings, a line would form that often extended outside the door. Indeed, my brother Ralph was sometimes able to finance his own haircut by selling his place in the waiting line to others who preferred “paying” to “waiting.”
There were at least two things about getting a haircut at Louie’s that those who went there have never forgotten. The first is a lasting mental image of a large framed picture that depicted a ghoulish scene of a ghost chasing a frightened farm boy down a country road. Ask anyone who ever went there, and they will be able to describe it for you, in vivid detail.
The second was of listening as the older men, especially Louie, expounded on the issues of the day. Beyond his unique insight, drawn from daily conversations that within a few weeks would have included almost every man of the community, there was the barber’s special voice pattern that resulted from a life-long speech impediment. The more excited he became, the longer it took him to express his point. But rather than a distraction, his stumbling words were as endearing as they were either humorous or insightful.
By the time I became a teenager, and the Beatles had ushered in a seismic change in how boys and young men wore their hair, Louie had closed his shop and settled in to a life of retirement. But several decades removed from waiting and listening while getting a haircut, I still remember warmly what is was like to be there, and to learn from him and his patrons some lessons that a young boy of those years could learn only in barbershop.
As elsewhere, getting a haircut at a barbershop, especially a first haircut, was an early initiation and rite of passage to maturity. Eventually, as a boy grew older, he could go to get a haircut without his dad or a bigger brother with him, yet another step towards the gates of real manhood. That’s when the barbershop became as much an educational as a grooming experience. Setting on the metal chairs of Louie’s Barbershop, with vinyl-padded seats and arm rests that were made of tubing, I learned some of life’s most memorable, if not profound lessons — and sometimes with words and expressions that would have made my mother cringe.
Politics, sports, and even religion were explained in terms that exposed me to a vernacular I had not heard on my father’s front porch. But it was the relations of men and women and other personal relationships I heard discussed in ways that, even at that early age, I knew I’d best not share when I got home. I also learned about who on the Island was most honored and respected, disliked and even feared. I gleaned from detailed, often humorous, stories whom I could trust, and just as importantly, whom I should avoid.
It also was there that I came to sense that most Island stories, no matter their topic, ended with a punch line, or some memorable phrase that weeks, years, or even generations later could be repeated and understood without ever having to tell “the rest of the story.” Some of them cannot be repeated here, but time has softened their edges in my memory so that I recall them now with as much fondness as I once did with amusement.
When I later took my own sons to Paul Wade’s, long after both Starling’s and Louie’s were left only to memory, there was still a sense that my boys had reached a milestone in their lives and in mine. By then the Island was less communal than it had been a generation earlier, and as a result the conversation was much more circumspect. But there was still a sense that they had just made their first visit to a place where a boy could start to learn more of what it was like to be a man.