VOL. 41 | NO. 45 | Friday, November 10, 2017
Average Joe’s barbershop is run just like Grandpa’s
Retired Metro Police Lt. Danny Driskell, who now does private security work, makes sure to swing by Joe’s Barbershop when it’s hair-cutting time. Driskell pretty much bases the frequency of his cuts to the length of hair Joe Eagles leaves him. “I tell him if he cuts it too short, I’ll come back a week later and if he leaves it too long, I’ll come back a week earlier,” says the retired cop. -- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger
Hipsters pursuing trendy urban shaves and haircuts, beers and cigars aren’t going to feel at home in Joe’s Barber Shop in the unnamed shopping strip just across Granny White Pike from Lipscomb.
Actually, he’d be glad to give them, anyone, haircuts. Just don’t expect a pampered, cushy millennial treatment.
“I just give haircuts. No cigars. No high-gravity beer while you wait,” says the plainspoken 49-year-old Joe Eagles, who, by the way, would love it if the old-fashioned neighborhood shopping strip got a name. “It would make it easier for branding,” he says, before climbing up into a barber chair, his slow-spinning pulpit for proclamations and prognostications about how hipsters have changed the barber shop trade in which he has spent more than 30 years.
The hipster crowd’s high-flying and increasingly great expectations – and soaring rent to match – adds tinder to Joe’s blue-collar sentiments and pretty much is why he practices hair-cutting here in a remodeled old barbershop he bought from the previous barber.
“He’d been in here 53 years,” adds Joe, talking of Al Riedl. “He still comes by sometimes just to say ‘Hi’ to me.
Joe – grandson of a lifelong barber who used to operate off Charlotte Avenue – found this almost hidden neighborhood jewel while fleeing, likely on his Harley Street Glide, the world of high-gravity beer, cigars, pedicures, manis and discussions about where to find the best $5 cup-o-coffee. (Those of my vintage and attitude – old and only occasionally ornery – remember when every neighborhood had one of these small strip centers, block-long groupings of stores, barber shops and, more-than-likely, a restaurant or a soda fountain where you could get a chocolate or lime phosphate and a dime store for penny candy and baseball cards accompanied by a flat piece of stale bubblegum.)
Joe learned his barber aesthetic early from one of his life’s role models.
“My grandfather’s barber shop was in an area that used to be just West Nashville. They call it The Nations now.”
Joe was more of a “gofer” than a student, as Grandpa James Mecbee liked to do things his way, the old-timey men’s barber way. “He didn’t have time for kids to bother him,” Joe admits.
Then he smiles. “What I do remember is that $2 bought an awful lot of hamburgers back then, and I could go to the store across the street and buy beer when I was 9 or 10.”
Unlike the case of the hipster barbershops, the beer Joe bought wasn’t consumed during working hours at Grandpa’s shop. Come Saturday afternoon, though, Grandpa turned the “Open/Closed” sign around, and he and neighborhood pals could be found washing down those burgers with good, cold American middle-class beer.
“My uncle (Jerry Mecbee) also had a shop over in West Nashville,” Joe says of the once-rough part of the city. Depending on which historic account you use, that swath of Nashville was developed to house families of inmates in the nearby Tennessee State Prison (aka “The Castle,” according to movie-makers) or to house vets returning from WWII.
Commonly referred to as “The Nations,” many of the smaller, blue-collar houses now give way to new homes, tall-skinnies and otherwise, rising from the carcass of the neighborhood that largely consists of streets named for states one way and numbered streets the other.
“It used to be just ‘West Nashville,’” a neighborhood of working-class heroes, Joe explains quietly as he leans back in the barber’s chair and puts his heavily tattooed arms behind his shiny, hairless head.
Joe has been barbering for more than 30 years, his first long-term job at Oxford Barber Shop on 21st Avenue, near Vanderbilt.
“I’d been to barber school, but I really learned from the older barbers at Oxford. They taught me everything they knew.”
Most of those old tradesmen – for barbering is a proud trade, Joe says proudly – are gone now, but at least one of their dedicated “apprentices” carries forward their legacy of selling good haircuts. And that’s all.
After 20-plus years at Oxford, Joe decided it was time to go it alone.
“When I went out on my own, I had a location at Edgehill Village, you know the place that has Taco Mamacita and that stuff?”
lt was a good location, a couple of blocks from Music Row, and many record execs and artists found some comfort (and haircuts) there, he says.
“I used to say I’d be the most famous person on Music Row who was not in the music business.
“I don’t want to tell you their names, because I don’t want to use them for publicity,” he adds of the celebs who came in for a shave and a haircut. That combo now costs $50. Tips welcome.
“You can’t get a shave and a haircut for two bits anymore,” Joe says, referring to the difference between his fees and that singsong folk couplet.
Joe recalls meeting those music biz people was one perk of having a barber shop in Edgehill, another rising neighborhood that, in addition to a flotilla of new houses and condos, is best known for 12th Avenue’s polar bears.
In the decades I’ve called Nashville my hometown, the Edgehill area has become less known for its whores, crack entrepreneurs and gunfights and better known for its burgeoning role as a hipster haven.
As the lowering sun dips into his Granny White shop, he reflects on the good times he had in that Edgehill storefront (also known as Joe’s Barber Shop) during his nine years there.
“Cowboy Jack (Clement) would come in there,” he says, of that gentle soul, a Shakespeare and pot enthusiast and musical genius, a Falstaffian figure whose influence helped the careers of guys with names like Elvis, Cash, Kristofferson, Orbison, Jerry Lee and Pride.
“I really loved hearing his stories,” says Joe of the man who helped raise the city’s musical horizons while holding court at his Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa, where creativity with a mandolin, a lyric or even a paintbrush was nourished.
“Over there in Edgehill, the hipsters didn’t even know who Cowboy Jack was,” Joe says of his friend who died four years ago.
“Cowboy Jack was a real good guy. The stories he told were about the people he has known over the years.”
Joe, the twice-married father of four, is a Smyrna resident who will defend, to the death, probably, the difference between barbers and stylists.
“They didn’t want my style of barbering in Edgehill Village,” is the conclusion that led to his eventual move to 4008 Granny White Pike, across the street from two men’s dorms at Lipscomb University.
“I really haven’t had much business from over there,” he says, pulling on one of his earrings while nodding his glistening head across the pike. “I did expect more students.”
Apparently, like hipsters, Lipscomb’s male contingent has been wary of this old-fashioned barber. “They think I don’t know how to do today’s hairstyles, but I learned from men who cut hair in the 1930s, 1940s, ’60s and ’70s. Those are the same styles they want now. I can do those.’’
And the college boys wouldn’t have to waste much time to get their locks shorn over here.
“Being a good barber means you do a haircut in a timely way,” he adds. “You should be able to give a haircut in 10 or 15 minutes. And there shouldn’t be a lot of people in here waiting.
“It’s ridiculous in some of the other ‘barbers’ people have to sit and wait 45 minutes to get their haircut.”
Here a student, if he times it right, can get his hair cut in the 10-minute break between classes. Oh, he might be a little late to the next class, but he could cut it pretty darn close.
It’s not cheap – $23 a cut, more for other services.
“One of the new hipster places charge $40, $50 or more. They are what they are, but they aren’t barbershops.”
He smiles again when thinking about the old man who used to send the 10-year-old across the West Nashville street for beer.
“My Grandpa said if you go to a place that takes appointments and color hair and has ‘those damn women’ in there, that’s not a barber shop. That’s a beauty salon.”
A note here: neither I nor Joe agree with that ‘’damn women” label.
“He took that stand back when the unisex barbershops came along in the 1970s,” adds the proud grandson who is holding onto the family tradition.
He’s also here thanks to the coaxing of his friend, Scott Tillman, a Lipscomb Academy teacher and head football coach.
“He’s my good friend,” Joe says. “He’d been telling me he was going to get me down here for years.”
Of course, there needed to be a spot in this little strip on Granny White Pike. Tillman alerted his pal when the former barber shop owner retired and the building stood vacant for a few months.
That bit of information, along with a huge rent increase at Edgehill Village, precipitated this move about a year and a-half ago.
“I couldn’t afford it, what they wanted,” Joe recalls. “I had been paying $19 a square foot, and they was pricing it up at $30 a square foot.
“I was proud to get them’” barber Joe Eagles says of his many tattoos, “but if I could, I’d take them off right now.” -- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger
“They did that because they knew what I was.” And what he wasn’t. He is an old-fashioned hair artisan, who can wield the clippers, scissors and straight razors with the best of them, but he’s not dying hair, giving permanents nor giving out beer and cigars to occupy waiting customers.
He laughs just a bit when he talks about the physical transformation he made here to bring the old shop up to today’s style.
“The floor was that old green tile,” he says, referring to the color found in most Nashville bathrooms a half-century ago. “It was old and breaking. I pulled them up and found this amazing hardwood floor.
“So, one of the main things I did was get that floor finished,” he nods down to the beautifully restored planks that catch trimmed-off locks.
Joe points to the three Wild Turkey crates that are used as shelves. “I was a little bit afraid of doing that here, right across from a Christian campus and in this neighborhood,” he says.
When one of the neighborhood women gave him a thumbs-up for this innovation, he knew he was “home.”
A massive, gold Predators flag also decorates this shop. “I got mine long before what happened last year,” he notes, referring to the bandwagon hordes sparked by the Preds’ close-as-a-whisker pursuit of the Stanley Cup.
He also has a quartet of signed Predators pucks leaning up against the shiny brass cash register his grandpa used.
“I still use that. It’s a 1909 National cash register,” he says, adding that the family gave it to him because he was following in the footsteps of his grandfather.
It’s a typically slow Tuesday on my first visit to the shop.
“Business was OK this morning. I had maybe 10 haircuts this morning.” Many of his ardent fans have followed him from the hipster neighborhood. After all, it’s close, but no cigar.
He’s looking forward to the day when more of his walk-ins – he does not take appointments – come from the neighborhood around Lipscomb.
“I think that things will get better once I get the neighborhood support,” Joe says.
Danny Driskell, a retired Metro Police lieutenant who now does security work for private firms, ducks in from Granny White.
He says he comes here for a couple of reasons. “It’s close for me and Joe’s a great barber and it’s where the prices is right.”
Joe knows just what cut the former cop wants. It’s likely the haircut he’s worn since he got out of the Police Academy.
“I love it here,” Danny adds. “And I’m not real picky. I tell Joe ‘if you cut it too short, it’ll be a week longer before I come back.
“If he cuts it too long, I’ll come back a week earlier.”
The easy conversation is stalled a bit when Joe’s smart phone ringtone blasts Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” “We come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow….”
“You a fan?” he asks, but doesn’t wait for an answer – obviously, none is needed – and he turns his attention back on the former police officer.
The friendly copper climbs down from the chair after Joe removes the apron filled with hair, then walks over to the ancient cash register to pay up.
The anti-hipster, neighborhood barber watches as the former police lieutenant escapes into the brisk, sunny afternoon.
“He likes what I do and how quick I get it done. It doesn’t take 30 or 45 minutes to cut hair,” Joe says, another swipe at the hipster clippers. “I had him in and out in 10 minutes.”
Sex is what sold Joe on a career as a barber when, at 16, he went to the International Beauty and Barber College. His brother, David, was a student there, and Joe wanted a free haircut.
“There were all these pretty girls there, and I said ‘I’d like to get a job like this.’ A recruiter for the school was right there and heard it and he told me if I came there as a student, ‘the girls will be falling all over you.’”
That was all he needed to hear.
His brother did go into barbering “for a long time” before retiring.
But three-plus decades after that free haircut, Joe remains enthusiastic about his career choice and its benefits.
“If you don’t like to talk to people, then this isn’t the business for you. I like to talk to people,” he acknowledges.
“It really comes to a point where the customer is like a friend coming to see you.”
He sits back in the barber chair and waits for the end-of-workday rush, when men passing by on Granny White on their way home from work drop in here for a trim.
In the bright sunshine, the tattoos on his left arm stand out even more. “I’ve got a few here, too,” he says, exposing his right shoulder. “I was proud to get them, but if I could, I’d take them off right now.”
The conversation is interrupted, but only briefly, when a thickly bearded Charles Powers, a drone entrepreneur, comes through the door.
This is his first visit to Joe’s place, certainly not his last.
“I got a good, solid feeling about him when I looked in here and saw that he could handle a straight razor,” he says, as Joe works the blade on the leather strop. “I seen he had straight-razor capability.
“Being able to find someone to cut your hair, give you a good haircut, that’s OK,” says Charles, when his cut’s done and he hands Joe a credit card.
“Thank you, sir,” says Joe when the transaction is completed and Charles steps out onto Granny White Pike.
Not to be ignored is that Joe uses “sir” to address all his customers and even a journalist with decade-long white hair.
Joe looks out the plate-glass window, ready to greet rush-hour clientele.
“I use ‘sir,’ because in this time, in a world where the moral compass has gone haywire, it doesn’t hurt to show people a little respect.”