Originally created 03/31/97

Cutting it close



As a little boy, Chuck Bright often made the rounds through downtown Mobile, Ala., with his grandfather.

One of their favorite stops, whether they needed a haircut or not, was the barber shop. The proprietor, known simply as Mr. George, cut hair, dispensed advice and gossip and treated his younger customers to bubble gum and soda pop.

As an adult, Mr. Bright is still drawn to the sweet, spicy smell of barber shop aftershave, the clack of scissor blades, the buzz of an electric razor and the scrape of a straight-razor cutting through stubble.

"It's hard to find a barber shop nowadays that does it just like they used to," Mr. Bright said recently as Billie Jo Jewell buzzed an electric razor through his brown hair.

But Mr. Bright has found his past at Leonard's Barber Shop, where Ms. Jewell works. There are two barber chairs in the tiny, age-worn establishment on Wheeless Road, one for Ms. Jewell and the other for owner Leonard Tyner. And stepping through the door, which is usually wide open, is like stepping back in time 48 years to the day the shop first opened.

"Things are like they were 20 years ago," said Mr. Bright, who also brings his 2-year-old daughter to the barber shop for her haircuts. "It's almost like the future hasn't touched this little hole."

But old-fashioned barbershops, slices of American history untouched by time, are a rarity in this era of fast-service, chain-owned beauty salons.

"We're fading out," said Earl Dillard, the lanky, gray-haired proprietor of Earl's Barber Shop on Lumpkin Road.

"We used to have people you could depend on every day to come by" for conversation, said Mr. Dillard, who has run the three-chair shop for 28 years. "It's changed a lot."

James Hambrick, a barber for 33 years, tried to dissuade his daughter Rhonda from entering the profession.

"There ain't no future in it," said Mr. Hambrick, a chain smoker with a pompadour and long sideburns. "You've got long hours, no vacation, no benefits."

But the young woman, whose mother is a beautician, ignored her father's advice and now works with him at Earl's Barber Shop.

Though their numbers are decreasing, barber shops will never fade completely, said Mr. Tyner, whose uncle and great uncle were also barbers.

Barbering, after all, is a business based on attentive service and accidental nostalgia.

At Russell's Barber Shop on Lumpkin Road, the cash register is an old punch-button model with a pull release lever and a wooden cash drawer. At Earl's Barber Shop, a couple of blocks west, a dingy white Philco refrigerator sits along the back wall, filled with real-glass bottles of Coca-Cola.

Missing is the smorgasbord of shampoos, sprays and gels for sale in most beauty salons. In a barbershop, the only crucial hair-styling tools are combs, round cushiony massage combs and a few longneck bottles of hair tonic and aftershave.

There might be a hair dryer and a television, concessions to modern technology, but they're rarely used. Customers choose barber shops for service and conversation, not for pretentious styling or to watch soap operas.

Mrs. Jewell, who once owned the barber shop on Wheeless Road, likes to pamper her customers when they slide into her chair, squeezing every bit of value into a $7 haircut.

"I try to give my customers, no matter who they are, the same service and the same amount of time," she said. For $7, a customer gets his hair trimmed with scissors and tapered with an electric razor. His eyebrows are clipped, stray hairs trimmed from his ears and nose, and his sideburns sharpened with a straight razor. The entire experience ends with a refreshing splash of aftershave.

At Earl's Barber Shop customers don't bother telling Mr. Dillard how they want their hair cut. After 28 years behind the chair, he already knows.

"There's no need asking me," Mr. Dillard said. "I'm going to cut it the way I want to anyway."

Like friendly, attentive service, frank conversation keeps the red, white and blue poles spinning outside old-fashioned barber shops.

"When I go, I do like to meet different people," said Lee Brassell, a customer at Earl's. "You learn a lot in barber shops, but you have to make your own decisions whether to believe some of it."