Oh, Those Old Southern Barbershops of Yore

Barbershop by Joan Estes

One of my favorite Tom Waits songs is “Barber Shop” from the 1977 album Foreign Affairs. It’s a jazzy, Beat poet-like monologue propelled by stand-up bass and drums. The song condenses a cascade of rhyming cliches into an archetypical visit to a Mid-20th Century barbershop.[1]

He sets the scene with one ass-kicking couplet:

Bay rum lucky tiger butch wax cracker jacks

Shoeshine jawbreaker magazine racks.

Then he treats us to typical idle barbershop chatter:

Morning Mr. Ferguson, what’s the good word with you?

[snip][2]

You lost a little round the middle and you’re looking real good.

[snip]

What’s the low-down Mr. Brown? I heard your boy’s leaving town.

[snip]

Throw me over the sports page, Cincinnati looking good.

[snip]


The hair’s getting longer, you know the skirts are getting shorter,
And don’t you know that you can get a cheaper haircut
If you wanna cross the border.

If your mama saw you smoking, well, she’d kick your ass.
Now you put it out you juvenile and put it out fast.

Well, if I had a million dollars what would I do?
I’d probably be a barber not a bum like you.

Still got your paper route now that’s just fine.
And you can pay me double because you gypped me last ti
me.

In Summerville, South Carolina, my hometown, going to the barbershop was not one of my favorite activities, right up there with visiting the dentist. In pre-adolescence, we patronized Homer’s, which conformed almost perfectly to Waits’s depiction. My father took me in those days because he thought women didn’t belong in barbershops – the way men didn’t belong in “beauty parlors” – because their presence would curtail free expression, whether it be an off-color joke by the males or juicy lady gossip by the females. 

At Homer’s you could get a shoeshine and a shave. I remember watching the barbers sharpen their razors on strops after they’d lathered the reclining recipients with soft-bristled brushes. To me, it looked scary. 

Mr. Homer, as we called him, employed another barber, Ben, a robust, heavy-set Filipino proficient but not fluent in English. Whenever someone came in with flipflops, he’d bellow, “How ‘bout a shoeshine?” and then laugh loudly at his own joke.[3]

At barber colleges, they must have a course in how to engage in small talk. Truth be known, I’ve never enjoyed Q and A small talk from service providers, whether they be barbers, dental hygienists, or the Porter-Gaud dad who peppered me with questions while performing my vasectomy. 

Also, sometimes small talk can seem like lying. 

“Don’t you think Gone with the Wind is the greatest movie of all time?”

“Uh, maybe.”

Anyway, in adolescence, I ditched Homer’s for a barbershop I think was called Bryant’s, which was owned and operated by African Americans, though think they only cut White people’s hair. It was located a couple of doors down from. Dr. Melfi’s Pharmacy, my go-to source for Mad Magazines

Bryant’s didn’t conform at all to Waits’s Homer’s-like barbershop. It had a New Orleans vibe with ornate shrines set up to honor JFK and MLK, Jr. with other photographs of less famous civil rights icons along with Hubert Horatio Humphry campaign buttons. It also seemed not as glaringly well-lit as Homer’s. On the other hand, I don’t think they offered comic books or magazines to flip through while you waited.

The barbers at Bryant’s weren’t all that big on small talk either, which suited me just fine. I think the last time I had my hair cut there was in August right before my junior year of high school. After that, I started cultivating a “freak flag” do and would get slight trims from girls I knew, just enough snipped so I wouldn’t get thrown out of school. Hair couldn’t touch your collar, and sideburns could only come down halfway down your ear. I had a friend named Gray who actually wore a short-haired wig to school.

The last old-fashioned barbershop I patronized was Gloria’s on Center Street at Folly Beach not long after we moved there in the very late Nineties. Like my ol’ man, I took my boys to the shop to get their hair cut. Gloria’s cat had full range of the joint, and although it didn’t seem all that hygienic, it was picturesque, and she only charged me five bucks because I’m bald. A proud lesbian, her small talk wasn’t all that small.

Now, of course, the building has been converted into a tourist bar. 

Ah, no; the years, the years; 

Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.

On a brighter note, I’ll leave you with Waits’s song. Enjoy.


[1] In fact, when I taught the Beats in my American Lit class, I played the song for my students on a Porter-Gaud phonograph, a relic that nevertheless produced high quality sound, albeit not stereophonic.

[2] [snip] designates I’m omitting lines; though, I’ll confess, it’s an onomatopoetic play on the action of the song. 

[3] Interestingly enough, we children called him Ben, not Mr. Ben, the way we called our maids Lucille or Alice while they called us Mr. Rusty or Mr. David. 

4 thoughts on “Oh, Those Old Southern Barbershops of Yore

  1. I loved getting my hair cut by Henry. He smelled the way older men should smell. He always gave me a nickel after my dad paid him for the haircut and I would get a small, locally bottled Coca-Cola from the vending machine in his shop. Some days instead of a soda I’d run down to Melfi’s (which smelled the way a drug store should smell – mostly because of the ancient wooden floor) and splurge on a fistful of hard candies. These days I don’t have enough hair on my pate to warrant a barber. Sure do have plenty of hair everywhere else. I could probably use that old short hair wig. I imagine it’s a tad rasty smelling after the football team ripped it off my head and threw it in the boys’ room urinal. But that’s a different Summerville story.

  2. Same thing at Homers with me and my dad. Later when old enough to drive I moved across the tracks to Simmons Barber Shop.

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