When was the last time you were in a real barber shop? You know, like Floyd’s in the Andy Griffith show, where men who have known each other for decades congregate to talk about the weather, tell stories, and maybe, just maybe, get a haircut. There is such a place in Micaville, on the far side of Burnsville, in Yancey County. I went there one Saturday morning to photograph the somewhat ramshackle two-story building, which is over one hundred years old. The downstairs has been a barber shop for most, if not all, of that time. I walked in and introduced myself, and immediately felt welcome. Owner Don Buchanan told me, “My Daddy used to bring me for a haircut when I was only this tall (Don reaches down to indicate a toddler’s height). I sat right there in that chair — I never dreamed I’d some day be the barber!” Don grew up around Micaville, and graduated from high school at what is now Micaville Elementary School, one of the WPA-sponsored stone schools built during the Great Depression.
A long-time friend and customer (pictured) was also there when I visited, and the two of them traded stories about their childhoods. Don told us that when he was old enough to go to the barber on his own, his Daddy (Yancey men and women always refer to their fathers as “Daddy”) would give him the money, and Don would often use, and lose, half of it playing pool upstairs. Then he’d sneak off to a cheaper barber down the road, using the other half of the money. His father could always tell, though, and Don would more often than not pay the price at the hurtin’ end of a switch. Somebody should write a book based on memories like these. Or better yet, put together an audio compilation of the stories. I could listen all day.
After returning to Asheville the following Monday, I decided to look for an old-fashioned barber shop there, rather than just photographing a business in a strip mall. Someone at work suggested a place downtown so I went there during my lunch break. When I walked in, the four men in the shop looked up at me, down at my camera, and no one said a thing. I stood there for a few awkward moments. Then I looked at the closest guy and started explaining what I’m doing, and asked if I could take a picture. He glanced at my camera again and gave me a very firm “no.” The owner then referred me to a shop just down the street. Off I went. The next place was much more modern than what I had in mind, and I noticed there was no name on the window. I went inside … same routine. Everybody stared, I introduced myself, the owner said “no pictures.” He was nice at least, even friendly. He referred me to yet another shop, one owned by “the original cat.” I kept my hopes up as I trudged up the hill to barber shop number three. Same routine: stares … explanation … “no.” This one was really funny though. The proprietor offered to let me photograph the picture of a barber shop on his wall! These three shops were all unique, but they had one thing in common: the owners and customers were all African American men. I don’t think of myself as a person who looks particularly untrustworthy, but it was clear that I, a camera-toting Caucasian woman, raised suspicions. I can understand that, but it’s too bad. I don’t take it personally; I just thought we had progressed beyond that.
While the day didn’t go as planned, I have to admit that it was an adventure. But I still didn’t have my “Asheville barber shop” photo. I surfed the web looking for other candidates and came up with the Battle Square Barber Shop, across from the Grove Arcade. When I visited during lunch the next day, owner Ray Jimenez welcomed me with a big smile. What a relief! While his place is not old fashioned, it is perfect for Asheville. Located in the basement of the building, with exterior steps leading to a brightly lit foyer, it feels more like a comfortable parlor than a shop. Ray moved here from California. His father was a life-long barber and his mother a cosmetologist, and Ray never thought of doing anything else. He loves his trade and it shows.
Ray hasn’t lived in Asheville all his life, and his shop doesn’t have as long a history as Don Buchanan’s in Micaville. But the two men have at least two things in common: an appreciation of heritage and an innate ability to make strangers feel welcome. It turns out that a place doesn’t have to be old to have old-fashioned charm.