People

The Best Barber I’ve Ever Had

  • By Michael Graff
  • Photography by Travis Dove

Who do you trust to cut your hair? The answer may say more about you than you realize.

barber

Long before my barber became my barber, he was God’s barber. He — my barber, not Him — spent several years cutting the hair of Rex Humbard, one of the first evangelists to have a weekly television program. Humbard delivered the ancient Word right into 20 million living rooms from his Cathedral of Tomorrow, and he did it with one fine head of hair. That hair was my barber’s doing. During the height of the ministry in the 1970s and 1980s, my barber flew from Greensboro to Akron, Ohio, every three weeks to cut Humbard’s hair and come home. My barber even cut Humbard’s hair before he preached at Elvis Presley’s funeral.

How my hair compares to Humbard’s hair, I do not know. But I do know that Randy Hicks is the best barber I’ve ever had. That’s not to speak ill of any of the others, past or future, but if I’ve learned anything about getting a haircut, it’s that the honor of Best Barber I’ve Ever Had always goes to the one who currently holds a razor to my neck.

Randy works out of Huffman’s Barber Shop in Greensboro, a shop started years ago by a man named Pete Huffman, who survived for four years as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II. It’s a place started by a real man for the rest of us who try to be.

I trembled a bit the first time I walked into Huffman’s. I’d just started a new job, at this magazine. At the time, I was the only male on the editorial staff. I asked my coworkers if any of their dads or husbands or sons or brothers had a reliable barber, one who would shave around the ears and neck and tell me lies. A dismaying sign of the times: None of them came up with a recommendation. So I went into Huffman’s not knowing what to expect.

We all go from one place to another place at some point, and in the process, we lose people and gain people and lose people again. I’ve moved a half-dozen times, and every time, finding a barber is one of the most anxious moments of the new beginning.

When I walked into Huffman’s that first time, I carried with me memories of men named Donnie and Billy and Buddy and Benny and Pete and Angelo, all the way back to Tommy, who gave me my first haircut, tears rolling down my cheeks.

I also carried only a debit card, a mistake in any barbershop. I was so nervous that I forgot one of the basic rules of life my dad taught me: A man carries cash. The three barbers who stared at me in Huffman’s that day — Dewey, Paul, and Randy — live by that rule, too, so they told me to come back when I had real money. I was the new fool already.

But I did return. And Randy was there, ready for the next available walk-in, with a neatly combed head of snow-colored hair and glasses, a round belly, and what looked like laugh lines in his cheeks. I knew nothing about him but what I saw. He asked the questions on that first day. He asked me what I did for a living, and I told him. He asked me where I came from, and I told him that I’d just moved up here from Fayetteville, and that I had a really good barber there, and that I was worried I’d never find anyone to trust like that again.

•••

Hair is a gender-dividing trait among humans. For many of the women I know, hair is something to be shaped or formed or styled. For most of the men I know, it’s something to be kept.

Men like me request regular haircuts — short on the sides, medium on top, parted one way or the other. We do it about every three weeks, keeping it consistent, keeping it under control, keeping it tidy and tight, until that inevitable day when parts of our hair are no longer there. It won’t happen in one moment, and the progress of decline is unseen, but it is a fact of life that there are simply some things that we can watch and maintain and care for with unrelenting diligence and still they will be inextricably lost.

Regardless, to have a head with any amount of hair is to have a chance to connect with someone.

From the years when we are guided by wonder, through the years when we realize not every dream is worth chasing, through the years when we work to provide, and through the years when we just live before we die, we need a haircut. And no matter what we’ve been through, the barber works in closer physical proximity to us than any other professional relationship we have, his scissors just inches from our thoughts.

What he extracts says more about us than it does him. The more a man talks to his barber, Randy tells me, the less that man talks to others outside of the barbershop. In other words, that man needs a friend.

Conversely, the less a man talks, the more he says outside the barbershop. Randy cuts the hair of several doctors in Greensboro. They don’t talk at all in his chair, he notices. Most close their eyes. And Randy does things, a slower neck shave or an extra clipper shaping, to prolong the haircut. He knows the doctor needs the full 15 minutes of peace.

The barber, then, is the man we talk to when we have nobody else, the man who keeps quiet when we have too many others, and the man who cuts our hair even if we don’t have much to cut.

The barber is our balance.

•••

The place where I lived before I met Randy, Fayetteville, is a rough town on the surface. It serves as the home of Fort Bragg, one of the largest Army posts in the country. Here, barber poles are everywhere. On streets called Yadkin Road and Reilly Road, just outside the main gate, soldiers have dozens of cheap and fast options for a high and tight. On those streets, men have little loyalty to one shop or another.

But in the heart of town, about 10 miles from that barber alley, the only barber anyone knows is Donnie Barefoot.

Before Randy became my barber, Donnie was my barber. I lived just down the street from his shop, the Haymount Barber Shop, and I quickly learned that he knew more about Fayetteville news than I did — and I was a newspaper reporter.

In a town where it seems everybody is from somewhere else, and people come here only to leave here, Donnie’s barbershop is the place to find people who love Fayetteville like it is family. Doctors and lawyers and construction workers and businessmen all sit in Donnie’s chair. Few of his clients are in the Army.

Donnie is 72, and he was born into a farming family in Sampson County, married a farm girl from Sampson County, and never lived outside of Sampson County, except for the year he went to barber school in Durham in 1959 and the six months when he went to training for the National Guard in 1962. He has driven 22 miles to work from his home in the country since the beginning of his career. On July 5, he will start his 54th year at the Haymount Barber Shop. He remembers when the shop was the only air-conditioned shop in Fayetteville. One of the other barbers who worked here when Donnie started was George Richardson, whose son is Jerry Richardson, who is now 75 years old and the majority owner of the Carolina Panthers.

Donnie has never missed a day of scheduled work. His regular days off are Sundays and Thursdays. About eight years ago, when he had prostate cancer, Donnie worked on a Wednesday, went into the hospital and had surgery that night, took his regular day off, and was back at work on Friday morning.

He’s cut four generations of hair for some Fayetteville families. At least a couple of days a month now, Donnie leaves the barbershop at 6 p.m. and goes to the funeral home to cut an old friend’s hair for the last time.

He uses the same comb, a Wahl USA black comb, he used when he started in 1959. Its teeth have a curve in the middle from wear. The chairs he uses are original to the shop, and yet only one has a tear in the upholstery. Mirrors are on both walls, in front of the chairs and behind them, perfectly slanted so that you can see what’s happening outside by looking ahead and following three or four reflections bouncing off of each other. Donnie sees who’s coming by looking in the mirror.

Parked outside is Donnie’s Ford Ranger pickup truck, which for 12 years has taken him those 22 miles to and from work. It now has 318,000 miles on it. “Pay $7.10 a year in county taxes on it,” he says. He talks like rural southeastern North Carolina talks — a voice that sounds like stones rubbing together, an accent that makes $7.10 sound like sebumten, and a smile that takes an awful lot to unlock.

I drove to Fayetteville to visit Donnie this spring, and I told him I wanted to write about him. He told me that the newspaper had done a story on him a couple of years ago, and I could just use that. I insisted, though, and he let me in. When I walked into the shop, Donnie was cutting hair. He looked at me through the mirror.

“So, you’re up in Greensboro now, huh?” he said. “How much they charge for a haircut up there?”

•••

The barber is fading. Not all barbers. But the kind of barber I trust.

Great Clips has about 25 shops in the Triad, nine in Greensboro alone. You can find the store location, see the estimated wait time, and check in all online. They advertise $3.99 haircuts or “free haircuts for a year!” and people hustle in and out, taking whichever chair is available next, without any sense of loyalty.

Hundreds of years ago, the death of the neighborhood barber would have seemed impossible. After all, he was also a surgeon.

During the Middle Ages, barbers treated diseases through bloodletting. The barber pole we know today dates to that time — red for blood, white for bandages, blue for veins. When someone eventually determined that a man who could cut hair wasn’t necessarily qualified to perform surgery, the two groups split. The barbers kept the pole.

After the Civil War, many of the barbershops in the United States were run by freed blacks. They brought an art and personality to the business. They dressed up the barbershop, turned it into a profession. They were savvy and ahead of their time in realizing the importance of image in business, and they played to stereotypes whites placed on them in order to keep the customers happy.

Cutting hair is not surgery; it is a service.

When The Beatles came to the United States in the 1960s, hundreds of barbers in North Carolina gave up their licenses because young boys and men wanted their hair to grow out. When those customers eventually came back for a trim, the barber had a decision to make: give the boys the haircut they wanted, or give them the haircut he thought they should have.

Dewey Misenheimer, a co-owner at Huffman’s, once worked with a barber who gave standard haircuts to boys who would’ve preferred to look like English rockers.

“He told them, ‘I’m going to give you your money’s worth,’” Dewey says. “He was out of business that year. You can’t give the customer his money’s worth; you have to give the customer the haircut he wants.”

A few years later, a scraggly man with long hair came into Huffman’s and nervously told Dewey, “Please, don’t cut too much off.” Dewey combed down on the man’s hair and went around the back, chopping the scissors in the air to make a sound, never cutting a single lock. And the man left happy.

•••

“Sixteen dollars,” I told Donnie.

“Hmm,” he said as I sat in his chair one more time, for old-time’s sake. “I just went up to elebum.”

The barber knows two things better than anyone: prices and weather.

When Donnie began cutting hair, he charged $1.25. Parents dropped their kids off at the shop and went to catch a movie for 10 cents. The Haymount Grill, a legendary local place, was already open across the street. The small building next door to the grill has been any number of things — it was a coffee shop when I lived here, and now sheets cover the windows and a local man broadcasts church services over the Internet.

Donnie knows just about every local business in Fayetteville. The publisher of The Fayetteville Observer, Charles Broadwell, has had his hair cut in Donnie’s shop since he was a boy, so when I started going there, I had a connection with the man who signed my paycheck, simply because of my choice in barber. Going to Donnie’s shop made professional sense for me, but it was more than that.

As a business, the haircut will never be outsourced. Even during the recent recession, people who have jobs want to look good to keep those jobs, and people who don’t have jobs want to look good to get one.

In the barber’s chair, work defines the man. Donnie introduces people by their names first and what they do second.

Bob owned several fast-food joints and now lives in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, but still drives to Fayetteville for a haircut. Steve is a doctor who does head and neck surgery, and he’s been coming here for nearly 50 years. Harold is 90 years old and a retired dentist who pulled “buckets of teeth” in his career, Donnie says. Donnie cut the hair of two men — Jack Britt and the late F.D. Byrd — who have high schools named after them.

Glenn Jernigan Jr. is a home builder. He’s in his 40s, and his dad is a lawyer and a lobbyist. Glenn Jr. grew up down the street, and he’s never had another barber. When I asked him what the men who come here — the sons of Fayetteville — will do when Donnie’s no longer here, Glenn Jr. said, “That’s a dilemma we haven’t had to ponder yet.”

It’s difficult to imagine life without your barber.

Aside from the conversations and news, what I recall most about Donnie’s haircuts is the last step.

Donnie uses Campbell’s liquid shaving cream. He mixes one eight-ounce bottle of it with two gallons of water and pours it into a lather machine with a motor. He presses the top of the machine, and it makes a buzzing sound, and he takes two fingers of cream and paints it first around the front of my right ear, feathers it out around the back and down to my neck, then back up around the left side. Then he unfolds the straight razor.

“They still shave behind your ears up there in Greensboro?” Donnie asked me that day.

When he finishes shaving, he sprinkles a brush and slaps my neck with something called Man’s Pinaud Clubman Powder, and when the dust reaches my nose, I’m struck by how much this man’s powder smells like baby powder.

•••

When I was young, after my nightly bath, I stood on the sink with my back to the mirror and faced my mom. She dressed me and dried my head with a towel, fast and fun so that we both laughed. She brushed my hair, parted on the left and flowing to the right. When she finished, she grabbed my shoulders and leaned back to take a look. Then she spun me around to the mirror.

“So handsome!” she’d say.

“So handsome!” I’d say back.

Despite our appearances sometimes, men like to look good and be told they look good. At Huffman’s, several customers request haircuts before business hours because they want what hair they have trimmed, so they can put on their toupees and leave unseen. Others ask that the barber not spin them around to the mirror after the haircut.

Stereotypes may say otherwise, and tough exteriors may never allow this admission: Throughout time, men have been more vain than women.

According to the book The History of Hair, in the 1920s, artificial-looking waves became popular in men’s fashion, and one expert waver in Boston, Massachusetts, reported that men used hot curlers and “In their anxiety to beautify themselves, they risk burning without a thought.”

In ancient Fiji, men dressed their hair with such fancy that the barber’s hands were deemed sacred — he wasn’t allowed to use them to do any other work; he wasn’t even allowed to feed himself.

From the minute we’re born and bring a smile to our mother’s face, we live in the space between doing for others and doing for ourselves, fiercely protective of our own identities but ever aware of outside perceptions. The haircut stands at the front of this internal debate. How we shape our hair is an independent choice, sure, but mostly it is a way for others to identify us.

So the barber remains one of life’s most important investments. Because you’ll keep needing him. When I left Donnie three years ago and walked into Huffman’s Barber Shop, of course I trembled a bit. My next barber, I knew, must have it all — he must be good, and he must be friendly, and he must be honest, and he must be trustworthy. He must be the kind of guy who’d be God’s barber.

•••

Randy Hicks was born in Randolph County, raised in Randolph County, and still lives in Randolph County. He moved away a few times — first when he joined the Navy, then when he went to barber college in Durham, and then when he went to barber training in England — but home is here. He finished his barber degree in 1960, one year after Donnie finished his at the same school.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Randy did some competitive barbering. He took models — real people of his choosing from North Carolina — and he traveled around the country to give the models haircuts for judging. The judges chose a cut — the continental, the Roffler Sculpture — and Randy had to perform it in 40 minutes. In 1970, he beat 300 other competitors from all over the world to win the David Cup as the world haircutting champion. For one year, Randy was the best barber on the planet.

That’s when Humbard heard about Randy and began flying him all over the country as his personal barber.

In 1975, Randy entered local qualifying to be part of the U.S. Olympic haircut team. The top four barbers at each stage of the competition advanced to the next stage. In the state competition, Randy qualified alongside Tommy Johnson of Asheboro, Grady Parham of Asheville, and Robert Hayes of Gastonia. In the regional competition, Randy and Tommy and Grady and Robert were the top four again, and they advanced to the national competition. In the national competition, against barbers from all over the country, Randy and Tommy and Grady and Robert were the top four again. The United States barber team, consisting only of men from central and western North Carolina, flew to New York to compete in the 1976 Haircut Olympics. They finished 13th among 70 countries.

Randy’s job has taken him everywhere. His second love is golf, and one of the men whose hair he cuts took him to Pebble Beach, California, to play once. Another put him on a private jet and flew him down for the Masters Golf Tournament. Randy was there on Sunday in 1986 when Jack Nicklaus, at 46 years old, won his final Masters. It’s a classic moment in sports history — the aging Nicklaus, his hair white and floppy, beating out a field of younger men, holding off time.

Randy lives with his wife, Lois, a retired librarian, in Ramseur. They have four children. The oldest, a daughter named Kim, died of Lou Gehrig’s disease 20 years ago. The second, Randall, lives at home after being paralyzed in a car accident. The third, Daniel, is a lawyer in Jamestown, and the youngest, Samuel, is a minister in Asheboro.

Randy drives 40 miles to work every day and 40 miles home, and he’s 71 years old. How I wound up with another barber who is the same age as Donnie and came from the same barber school as Donnie and drives into the city from a country home like Donnie does, I do not know. But I do know that they’re the two best barbers I’ve ever had, and they seem to be balanced by being both in touch and out of touch. And a balanced barber is a good barber. Steadier hands.

Randy thinks about the future of his profession, but at his age, he doesn’t concern himself too much with it. He’s the life of Huffman’s Barber Shop. He and Jack Vaughan, who left a career as an accountant to become a barber, make bets every week on professional golf. The total purse each week: $1. Often, they just pass the bill back and forth. Randy’s laugh lines are always stretched. He’ll show you how he can do the hambone, a wild, knee-slapping dance that he taught his youngest son. A video of that son doing the hambone wound up on YouTube and, subsequently, “The Ellen Degeneres Show.”

Randy lives the kind of life that will make you wonder what you’ve been doing with yours, in between all those haircuts.

When I walked into Huffman’s Barber Shop that first time, I didn’t know anything about him but what I saw. All I knew was that Donnie had been my barber, and I wondered if there was anyone I’d ever trust like that again.

We didn’t talk that much the first time, Randy and me.

But I remember the end of that haircut. Randy pressed down on a machine with a motor that made a buzzing sound, and he took two fingers of shaving cream and painted it first around the front of my right ear, feathered it out around the back and down to my neck, and then back up around the left side.

And each time he swiped the razor, I felt the warmth of that shaving cream giving way to the cold of a smooth and naked neck, and I felt at once the sensation of being handsome again and the nip of knowing that it was only temporary.

Haymount Barber Shop
1224 Fort Bragg Road
Fayetteville, N.C. 28305
(910) 483-6522

Huffman’s Barber Shop
1728 Battleground Avenue
Greensboro, N.C. 27408
(336) 274-4879

Michael Graff is the senior editor of Our State magazine. His most recent stories were “Dahlia King” and “Nuts, Bolts, Washers, & Roses” (April 2012).

This entry was posted in June 2012, People and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Best Barber I’ve Ever Had

  1. Leroy Spivey says:

    My name is Leroy Spivey and I live in Columbia NC. We have someone who might be the oldest working barber in NC. Mr. Bobby Mitchell is 96 years old and he works six days a week cutting hair. His price is $5 and his shop is downtown Columbia. I would like for you to check into this and if he is the oldest ,our community needs to know and I would like to have someone visit with him and get his very interesting story. As a county commissioner, I would propose a Resolution honoring Mr. Bobby as the oldest barber ,if that is determined to be true. As you may guess, he is a WW11 Veteran.

  2. Tony says:

    Outstanding work. I’m a 35 year old barber in Lexington, Ky, at the shop I grew up in. I work for the old man who’s cut my hair since I was a kid. He’d fit right in with Donnie & Randy.

  3. John Albergo says:

    What a nicely-written story!

  4. Katie Curtis says:

    You need to meet my son Jason Curtis at what might be the oldest barber shop in NC, Model Barber Shop in West Asheville. He is a young man, 37 today, who recently bought the Model from Byrum Lewis, in his 90s. Despite his young age, Jason is one of the finest to cut hair in this area. His skills however are not to be outweighed by his humor and ability to carry on a conversation with anyone that comes in for a cut. Please stop by some day to endulge in some light hearted conversation and one of the best haircuts you will ever have. Thanks, Jason’s mom

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