Gillespie’s Barber Shop, on 12th Street in Dunbar, was where I received my first haircut. I don’t remember it, of course, but my mom says I cried the whole time, and there was an abundance of “snot and tears.” Sounds about right. I was always a fan of the wild outta control crying jag, until my heart eventually turned black and my ability to feel emotions was cauterized and destroyed.
Anyway, when I was a kid every boy in Dunbar went to Gillespie’s. There were other barber shops in town, but they catered to a more grizzled clientele. Somehow Gillespie’s cornered the market on kids.
Here’s a grainy photo of the place. The barber on the right is Clarence, and the one in the middle is Ernest. That third guy is a mystery to me. The third chair was always a wild card. Usually it wasn’t used at all, and when it was… the dude didn’t stick around long enough to secure a following. Clarence and Ernest were the heart and soul of Gillespie’s. They were like Mick and Keith, or Raymour and Flanigan.
I always received my drastic Eisenhower-era throwback haircuts from Clarence, but my brother was an Ernest man. I don’t know why, but there was never any crossover.
Inside the shop was an ancient Coke machine that served up 8 oz bottles for a dime. Comic books were strewn around, and they were really good ones, too; no bullshit Little Dot, or anything like that. And behind Clarence’s chair — on the counter and mirror — was all sorts of St. Louis Cardinals baseball paraphernalia. He claimed Stan Musial was the best player ever, and loved the Cards. In West Virginia?! It was unheard of, almost exotic.
It was a great place. Old men would hang out in there, and it was always full of laughter and barbershop smells. But by the time I was in my young teen years, people had started abandoning Gillespie’s and going to so-called salons. Everybody had ridiculous Gabe Kaplan hair then, and Clarence and Ernest were set in their ways. You’d come out of there looking like 1957, regardless of what might be happening beyond the four walls of that shop.
And I was genuinely sad about this. I had to give them up too (I mean, seriously), but felt like a traitor of the highest order. It didn’t take long before Gillespie’s closed, and Clarence and Ernest were retired. They were at retirement age, anyway. But I still felt guilty for turning my back on those nice old guys. They were almost like family, and I’d thrown them over for some gum-smacking, cig-voiced hussy at the Hair Hangar, or whatever.
There were other flirtations with betrayal, but those had been my mother’s idea. My hands are clean in the matter.
For a while she had some woman coming to our house, and cutting our hair in the middle of the living room. I think the interloper’s name was Trina, and she had a STRONG southern accent. She said “ice” like “eyes,” or some shit. It gave me the heebie-jeebies (talk right!). My mother always paid her cash, and I think they were engaging in some sort of off-the-grid black market hair styling scheme. I hope the statute of limitations have run out? My mother’s too old for Moundsville prison.
We also visited a so-called barber college in Charleston a couple of times. Ha! I guess Gillespie’s $1.25 cuts were a little too exorbitant? So, my mom drove us downtown and allowed complete strangers to take their mid-term exams on our heads. It was so freaky and weird, my brother and I howled in protest. So, we only went two or three times and she allowed us to return to Gillespie’s.
Since then, it’s been nothing but Super Cuts and places like that. It’s never the same person twice, but they usually do a decent job. It’s not the same, though.
A few years ago I decided to try to recapture the old Gillespie’s magic, and find an honest-to-God barbershop. I went to two, and gave up the search.
The first guy launched into a racist diatribe, about the Mexicans and “coloreds.” WTF? He’d never seen me before in his life, and knew nothing about me. He seemed very angry, and I was worried he might get so whipped-up he’d slit my throat.
The second man was saner, but very old and shaky. He smelled like gasoline, and was using clippers that should’ve been in the Smithsonian. They made a loud clacking sound, and were throwing off a shower of sparks. I thought both of us were about to go up in a ball of fire. It was terrifying.
A few days ago I was eating lunch in a diner near here, and there was an ad on the paper placemat for a “real, old fashioned barbershop,” and I might check it out. But I have a feeling it’s gimmicky, and not genuine. And possibly expensive, too. My expectations are low, but I’m going to see what it’s all about. Eventually.
Do you have a Gillespie’s in your past, or has it been nothing but Fantastic Sam’s? Perhaps you get your hair cut at one of those fancy-pants places, where they serve wine? Or maybe you just do it at home? We’ve toyed with that, with mixed results. Occasionally it’s perfect, but I often feel like my head is asymmetrical, and slightly askew.
If you have anything to share on the EXCITING subject of hair cutting, please do so in the comments section below. If you’ve had luck finding an old-style barbershop near you, please tell us about it. I want to live vicariously through you, until I can find one of my own.
And I’ll see you guys again tomorrow.
Have yourselves a great day!