Shop a safe haven for barber, his customers

Friday, November 27, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 48

Tony Reed, whose nickname is “Mister T,” makes sure Etch busboy Larry Johnson (“I’m cool... Like a big, ol’ Teddy bear”) keeps his hairless and friendly image ready for work and play during two or three weekly visits to Reed & Son’s Barber Shop.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

Mister T puts a straight razor to the busboy’s throat. “I like it here because of the comfortability,” says Larry Johnson, 32, the busboy, as Mister T finishes his surgically precise separation of whiskers from neck and chin.

“There’s a sense of home here,” adds Larry, near supine in the middle chair of Reed & Son’s Barber Shop while Mister T massages shaving soap into his slick ebony skull.

Tony Reed was dubbed “Mister T” by his school chums not because they pitied the fool but because they wanted to differentiate him from his father, also named Tony and also a barber, who still works part-time at this Cleveland Park neighborhood landmark.

“I’ve been working here since I was 3,” says Mister T, Tony, 30, who pulls a steaming towel from the microwave and turbans it atop Larry’s bald head before returning to the whisker-ectomy.

“Not a lot of barber shops like this one left,” says Larry, who visits two or three times a week to keep his hair-and-whisker free head smooth as Mauna Loa obsidian, so he can be clean and prepped for his nightly work at Etch Restaurant, the fine-dining establishment near the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.

“All night work. Only time I do double shifts is Saturday,” says Larry, who chats easily as if with an old friend while the 30-year-old barber begins applying razor to skull.

“It’s relaxing here” is how Larry describes the 55-year-old barbershop that’s an East Nashville success story … despite the fact one of the world’s most famous barbers works down the block and just across Vernon Winfrey Avenue.

That famous barber is the former Metro councilman for whom this short road that connects North Fifth to Lischey Avenue is named.

Constituents and the media loved Councilman Winfrey.

And that love was reinforced by the fact he’s Oprah Winfrey’s pop. Worshipers of the self-styled queen of all media often visit the neighborhood just to see Vernon’s barbershop in the neighborhood where he raised the media magnate who claimed much of the responsibility for the political success of that other “Big O”: Barack Obama.

Back before Oprah became the international face of the African-American estrogen set, Vernon used to cut hair from a small, white building with a tomato garden behind it. Now his shop is in a modern office building, and the days of picking tomatoes to give visiting journalists (during the season) are long past.

“He do work still here,” says a woman who answers my phone call to Winfrey’s shop. “He’s in here cutting hair every day. Not here today, though.”

Though I like the guy, I’m not here to see Vernon this day, nor am I here to lament the passing of the old tomato giveaway. I’m here to visit with his friendly competitors at Reed & Son’s Barber Shop at 410 Vernon Winfrey Ave.

I’d been here before, but that was back when future barber Tony was an elementary school kid known in the neighborhood as “Little T.”

“I started out here when I was 3 years old, brushing hair off people’s backs,” explains the younger Tony, the full-grown Mister T, as he talks about roots and heritage, life as the third-generation of barbers to work at this shop.

“I started out cleaning it up and now I’m running the place,” says Tony, who was raised by his grandfather, grandmother and his dad.

His life began in a more hazardous part of town, where he lived with his mother and her other six children.

“I saw a lot of things I shouldn’t have seen when I was with my mother,” he says, noting that drugs and guns were ubiquitous in that South Nashville neighborhood from which he was rescued by big Tony (“Big T” perhaps?) and Little T’s paternal grandparents.

“My grandfather (Carl) and grandmother (Elease) and Dad said, ‘No, he’s not going to grow up there, he’s going to grow up with us,” notes Tony, explaining that he ended up being a “second son” to Carl and his destiny early on was compassed toward working in this shop.

“My grandparents told my mother: ‘He’s not going to be no thug. He ain’t going to be no street gentleman.’”

So they took him home to raise him, away from a troubled section beneath the Nashville Skyline where nights are oft punctuated by gunfire, sirens and occasional remorse. “My mother and my daddy were never married,” says Big T’s only child.

“Everything I have, everything I’m doing now is this way because this was how my grandfather planned it,” he says. “Oh, I wasn’t pushed into being a barber, but I guess there was some pressure.”

For good reason: Carl Reed, now 77, and his son, 53, remain well-respected men in the neighborhood barber shop that, like most in the African-American world, serves as much more than a place to get locks chopped and ’stache snipped.

“A lot of people have faith in their barber,” explains Tony, whose grandfather still works here Thursday-through-Saturday and whose father, a UPS logistics man, returns on Saturdays. It’s a family tradition.

“People come to their barber to discuss their sexual problems, to get advice, to talk about life,” says Mister T while scanning the guts of his 55-year-old building.

Oprah’s pop’s place down the street similarly serves as the black equivalent of the Italian-American “social clubs” of film fame (minus the espresso and olive oil, of course.)

“If you want to talk about the game or find out what the score is, you go to the barber shop,” Tony says.

While he is generation No. 3 in the building at 410 Winfrey Ave., Tony’s the ninth generation of Reed family barbers.

“Most of them are down in Pulaski and Giles County,” he says of various cousins and uncles who, like him, preside over discussions of life, death, erections and touchdowns in their own shops.

“It feels good,” Tony adds. “It’s a great feeling. It’s also a great honor. It’s a blessing to be able to carry on my family legacy like I have been.

“Pretty soon, my wife, Nia, will be working here, too,” he adds, noting the cosmetology school grad will be doing women’s hair from the fifth chair – the farthest from the plate glass facing Vernon Winfrey Avenue.

“She’s going to start here, but I’m going to fix her a spot over there to set up her own beauty parlor,” he says, nodding toward a storage area at the western side of his building. That separation of facilities likely will make both genders (all genders?) more comfortable and confidant while sharing the confidential.

Since the sun is beginning to slant on this mid-week day, most of the customers have been and gone.

Tony Reed is following his family tradition by running Reed & Son’s Barber Shop.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“Man we were busy before,” explains Tony. He doesn’t mind the relative peace: It gives him time to talk to this just-turned-64-year-old white-haired guy he remembers from a quarter-century ago when my long hair was still brown, and I visited this building to write a “Real Life” column on Carl and his Reed & Son’s shop for the long-deceased, still-lamented, local-news-driven Nashville Banner.

“Yeah, I remember you, Tim,” says the guy who got the nicknames – Little T and then Mister T – to differentiate him from his father, Tony A. Reed. Mister T is Tony D. Reed. “I don’t want to tell you what the ‘A’ stands for in my father’s name. He might get mad at me.”

He climbs from the barber chair – one of five – to show off the new counters, cabinets and floors, fruit of his labor since he took over Reed & Son’s fulltime. “I make my money cutting hair, but I‘m a trained mechanic, carpenter, electrician and screenwriter.

“I want to make action movies,” he says, comparing the script he’s working on to “John Wick,” the Keanu Reeves flick about a hit man who un-retires to get vengeance after Daisy – the beagle puppy given him by his late wife (Bridget Moynihan, Tom Selleck’s DA daughter in “Blue Bloods”) – is killed and his vintage ’69 Mustang stolen by Russian gangsters. … Or something like that.

But Tony – who admits to somehow escaping six gunmen bent on killing him back in his fast, motorcycle-riding youth – doesn’t want to detail his own film script.

“I always wanted to make movies. I went to film school at TSU,” he adds. He dropped the academic pursuit but not his Hollywood dreams when he was 18 and came to work full-time in the family business.

“The wheel was already in motion then as I pursued what everyone else thought I should do with my life,” he explains, pride, not bitterness, flavoring his voice.

“I can’t see myself cutting hair when I’m 70 or even 60, Tim. You know, by the time I’m 40, I’ll have already been working here 37 years.”

Even if he makes it in the movie world, the shop will remain open, and he’ll likely return to work clipper-and-razor magic one or two days a week. That’s a family tradition too.

He leads the way to a plaque on the wall, not far from the front window. “That’s an award a group called ‘Unique Gents’ gave to my grandfather. He was man of the year in 2014.”

The pride in being the heir to a man who has built such a solid reputation in urban Nashville is evident in his smile’s glow.

While he and Nia have only been married two years, Tony says eventually they’ll have children who will face their own decisions about the family business.

“If that’s what they want to do, that will be great, but when you push kids into something that they don’t want to do, you end up having problems. Whenever we have a child, it will be up to him or her to decide what they want to pursue.”

No, although he was nudged into this business in post-toddler years and has known little else, he doesn’t resent his grandfather or his father. “It was a little like the Michael Jackson story: I was just expected to be in this business,” he says.

But that’s all right now, in fact it’s a gas, he admits. Here he and Nia can build their futures together as a happy couple thrown together by crime.

“I lived over by Shelby back then. Some people broke into my house and took my TVs, my clothes, everything.

Carl Reed, right, started the Reed & Son’s neighborhood barber shop 55 years ago. Grandson Tony Reed now runs the place.  For nine generations, the Reed family has been cutting hair in Nashville and Middle Tennessee.

-- Tim Ghianni | The Ledger

“So I began to go out to Rivergate Mall every day to buy a new shirt and new pair of jeans to build my wardrobe back up, and I kept seeing this pretty girl who was working in a women’s clothing store.

“Finally I figured I didn’t have anything to lose, so I went and talked to her.

“God pushed me in that direction. She was what I needed. I was what she needed. I had been in a lot of bad relationships. I always seemed to attract women who were users, who wanted to use me for my money or who wanted to use me to try to get pregnant.”

In Nia he found a partner who “needed someone who would be kind to her and have respect for her.”

It is because of her rural, Cadiz, Kentucky, upbringing that the couple purchased their house and its two acres of green, wooded and tastefully decorated privacy near Manchester.

“I’ve always considered myself an artful person. My wife and I have art in our home. I don’t have no Monets or Mona Lisas hanging around. I like abstract art.

“It’s 100 miles I drive each day to come and go from work,” he says, nodding toward the red sports car on the other side of the shop’s windows.

He’s happy to make that journey.

“What keeps me here are the people and the environment. The people love me. I love all them, the people.

“Most of my customers are from the neighborhood and they started getting their hair cut by my grandfather. But I have some who come all the way from Kentucky – Franklin, even Louisville – once a week to get their hair cut.

“I have one gentleman who comes all the way from Cleveland, Ohio, once a month. He’s from here, but his job took him to Ohio. He was hooked on my granddad cutting his hair. He knows I’ll always do my best.

“And sometimes, if he’s working that day, the original, my grandfather will cut his hair.”

While here, customers may buy the hair and scalp products Tony concocts and sells under the “Senor T” brand name. Between action movies and his Senor T products, he figures he’s en route to “my name becoming as well-known as Sam Walmart.”

Sure, Mister T may move on someday. Anything’s possible. But even if he does make a film or two or chase grooming-lotion dreams, chances are he’ll be here in 2040, when I return for my traditional, every-quarter-century checkup of Reed & Son’s Barber Shop.

“I was born into this barber shop,” says Tony. “And I like it here. It makes me feel good to be keeping the family tradition going, plus I get to work with my granddad and my dad.”

As I prepare to leave, Grandpa Carl nurses his pickup to the curb in front of the shop and comes in to visit with his grandson and see his own dream play out on Vernon Winfrey Avenue.

“I remember you,” Carl says, as we exchange hearty, two-fisted handshakes. “We both were a lot younger last time you were here.”

I look to the wall of mirrors and respond that he’s aged much better than me.