Cutting hair, telling stories: Life back to normal at A Barber Shop

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FLEMING ISLAND – It was difficult to hear the telephone ring over the playful conversations and derision at A Barber Shop last Tuesday.

Customers, make that friends, sat along the walls – each at least six feet apart and wearing masks – as three barbers worked their craft on burly heads that haven’t seen scissors in nearly two months.

When Gov. Ron DeSantis lifted restrictions on barber shops and beauty salons on May 11, for many it was more than getting an overdue trim or sharpening the edges of a flattop. It was about rekindling longstanding friendships.

“Some of my customers, they just want to gab all day long,” said owner Jim Thurston.

The 73-year-old Vietnam War veteran said he gave 73 haircuts on his first day back to work after DeSantis closed barber shops, nail and beauty salons on April 1 after determining they weren’t considered essential in the battled against COVID-19.

For a man who worked on small gunboats with a 50-caliber gun in Vietnam searching fishing vessels for Vietcong fighters, the closure was far more than an inconvenience. It challenged his way of life.

“It’s going to take a while to catch up. Rent’s pretty high here. I had to pay utilities, all that stuff while we were closed,” Thurston said.

“I missed my clients. I missed them a bunch. This is my life. I’m 73 years old and I don’t ever plan on retiring.”

“We ain’t going to let you retire, Jim,” said longtime customer Tom Franklin as he turned the page in a magazine.

At Thurston’s shop, while they can do anything hairstyle-related, they really do just one thing – cut hair. There are no braids, highlights or stylings. Don’t even think about asking for mousse.

The telephone rang every couple minutes. Each call was answered in the same way: “Barber shop.” Until COVID-19, appointments weren’t necessary.

Hair fell on the floor in massive heaps, only to be swept after each customer.

The walls are covered with military and police patches from all over the country. There’s also a deer head mounted to a wall. Thurston is loud and proud. So are his customers.

“It’s more like a roast in here,” said Kim Joiner while chuckling. “They carry on with each person and they’re so ugly to each other, I wouldn’t come back if I were them.”

“You just got to give back what you get,” Franklin said.

When Thurston got to his shop at 4313 U.S. Highway 17 on Monday morning, customers were already waiting. There was a lot of hair to cut, a lot of stories to tell. But it wasn’t until he unlocked the door and turned on the lights when he realized his unexpected six-week layoff was finally over.

“I was elated. It was a good feeling. They were already lined up on the sidewalk. It was a good feeling just to see them,” he said. “I’m glad to be back.

“In this shop, it’s about being with your friends. We all missed that.”

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