I don’t know about you, but I make a point to get a haircut every spring, whether I need one or not. This time of year I tend to find myself at the Union Avenue Barber Shop. It’s in a century-old building, once an apartment house known as the Althea. I don’t know who she was, but we see her name more often than the name of many famous women, because it’s still prominent in the stone on the front.
The Union Avenue Barber Shop, of course, is on Walnut Street, near Clinch. Knoxville institutions are fiercely loyal to their original names, despite the changing environment. Earth to Old City has been on Market Square for years, but it’s still Earth to Old City. Church Street Methodist hasn’t been on Church Street since the Coolidge administration. Cherokee Country Club, you may have noticed, is no longer in the country.
It’s the last of its kind downtown: there are a few other places that will cut a man’s hair, but this is an old-fashioned place with a barber pole and a magazine rack and a couple of guys in white smocks waiting to offer a trim for just a few bucks.
When I first started going to Union Avenue Barber Shop, they were still up on Union Avenue, and they had half a dozen barbers, and typically a wait, which I never minded much because I rarely had a chance to read Field & Stream, and the place was noisy with lively conversation.
Now there are just the two, Denny Ledford and Lynn Carter. At any given time, only one may be on duty. They’re both semi-retired, and like long weekends. Denny is the more formal of the two, almost courtly in manner. He’s happy to talk if you’re in the mood to, but won’t force it. He often wears a jacket and tie, and walks around downtown when he’s off. Lynn’s the extrovert in the beach shirt, the one who always seems to have a joke on the tip of his tongue. They’re the white-haired yin and yang of downtown barbering.
Denny was keeping watch when I dropped in last week. He’s been at it a little longer than Lynn. “I’ve seen it go from short to long to short again,” he says of men’s preferences. He began cutting hair in downtown Knoxville in 1954, after he got his degree from the old Tri-City Barber College on Central. His first job was at the long-gone Plaza Barber Shop, on Gay Street at Church. Among his customers was John Duncan Sr., father of our congressman. “It was before he was mayor,” he says, and long before he was a congressman himself. “He was just a lawyer then. He was pretty easy to deal with. He had a full head of hair.”
He worked there for about three years before he moved to Ohio. “I thought I could get rich. But I was just able to save enough money to come back home.” He ran his own shop in Cleveland, Tenn., for 20 years, and took a job at Union Avenue in 1990.
He’s not sure how many customers he has now: maybe 150 regulars, mainly guys who work downtown.
A shoeshine man, Willie Debro, used to come in now and then, and had a significant customer base. He retired with health problems just a few months ago. There are no others, downtown at least. “I guess Willie was the last one,” Denny says.
And they no longer offer shaves. After AIDS, many barber shops seem to have quit applying blades to random faces.
Downtown Knoxville once supported 70 barber shops
The sign on the window says “Established in 1916.” Records are murky, but Denny says the shop started out in the rear of the old Kern building, what’s now the lobby of the St. Oliver Hotel. He thinks it was called Julian’s then. Later it moved into the then-new Grand Union building, built on the site of the Arcade Building fire of 1930.
It’s been known officially as the “Union Avenue Barber Shop” since 1932. That was the year local barber Lee Maples bought the place. The name may imply a dare. The year the “Union Avenue Barber Shop” was listed under that name, there were three other Union Avenue barber shops, including the Queen Barber Shop (were guys then happy to admit they got a Queen cut?), and the IXL (get it?).
In the 1930s, downtown Knoxville supported about 70 barber shops. What’s happened since then may have more to do with changing fashions than the specific fortunes of downtown. Many men don’t get haircuts from barbers anymore: some get their hair styled by attractive women in unisex chain salons. Lately many shave their heads bald with a razor. Some don’t cut their hair at all.
It’s not like the old days, when a guy who went a month without a haircut struck people as an odd and shaggy fellow, perhaps a mental case or an anarchist. If you were a bum in the street, and found a quarter, you might get a haircut before you thought about a sandwich or a bottle of hooch.
When the Union Avenue Barber Shop moved into an annex to the Sprankle Building in 1981, a newspaper article bemoaned the barbers’ diaspora, following their workplace as it was booted out of one building after another. Then the bank evicted the barbers when they announced plans to raze the Sprankle. The barbers moved into the Daylight Building, their fourth location on Union, and had just caught their breath when they heard that building was being renovated for condos.
So, ending a century of barber-shop tradition on Union Avenue, three years ago they moved around the corner into the handsome old Althea building. It’s worked out all right. “I think Union Avenue’s a better street,” Denny admits. “There’s more walking traffic.”
Who cuts his hair? “Lynn,” says Denny. “And I cut his hair. About every couple of weeks.”