Alum Creek barber still snipping at 72
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- He's a community kingpin, a backbone of the Alum Creek Lions Club, a beloved teller and listener of tales about everyday life in Alum Creek.
The kingpin's domain is a one-chair roadside barber shop on the main drag through town, a homey place decorated with such eclectic items as a Marland for Governor sign, a large picture of Jesus, a Prince Albert tobacco tin and a collage of graduation portraits for the Duval High School Class of 1957.
Turning 72 today, Jim Ryan holds forth here five days a week, happily pursuing his trade with no thoughts whatsoever of retiring.
In 1959, after barbering elsewhere for two years, he borrowed $800 and hung his shingle in a shop down the road. In 1968, he built the landmark shop on W.Va. 214.
He wrote three books filled with folksy anecdotes picked up from his five-generation clientele.
His travel covers every state and three other countries, but no place fits better than the tiny slice of world where he started.
"I was born in 1940 and grew up on a hillside farm in Alkol in Lincoln County. My dad was a coal miner and a barber. I had three sisters and a brother. I had a little sister who lived eight years who never walked or talked, so Mom had to take care of her. She died when I was 10.
"I don't like to use the word poor. We were underprivileged is all. We weren't the best-dressed in the community. We got one pair of shoes a year. But we never went hungry.
"Still, we always had plenty to eat. We raised it on the farm. I milked the cow in high school. That old cow would go to the farthest place in the pasture, and I'd have to go after her in the evening and in the morning to milk her.
"Our grandmother lived with us in the house that my grandfather built by hand, partly of logs. I like to say I have something in common with Abe Lincoln in that I was raised in a log cabin.
"We raised tobacco as a cash crop. At Thanksgiving, we would pay off the store account at Stowers' store in Alkol. We bought things there that you couldn't raise on the farm -- salt, pepper, bananas. It was a good life, a healthy life.
"I went to Duval High School in the only class that had a song written about it, 'The Class of '57' by the Statler Brothers.
"I put in my high school annual that I wanted to be a barber. My dad was a barber. The Depression put him out of business and he went to Boone County and got the job in the mines.
"When his health got so he couldn't get a mining job, he opened a barber shop in Alkol and worked there about 16 years. He had two brothers-in-law who were barbers, and they had sons that were barbers. My niece went to cosmetology school. So it's a family of hair people.
"I didn't want anything to do with coal mining. I saw my father suffer. He smothered to death. Your lungs fill up with coal dust, and you can't get it out.
"When I was a boy, my mom would rub my dad's chest and back with Vicks salve, and I would hold towels in front of that radiant stove and get them real hot and put them on him to ease the congestion.
"My sister's husband was in the Marine Corps, and she got me a job at Camp Lejeune between my junior and senior years in high school. I didn't think my dad would let me go because of the tobacco crop. That last crop, I helped set it. When I came home, I helped cut it and strip it and sell it, and I swore if I ever had to raise another tobacco plant, old Jim would go hungry.
"At Lejeune, I worked at the officers' club. I peeled potatoes and shrimp, washed dishes, cooked and served, did janitorial work, and I made $42 a week for 48 hours work. It made me appreciate it back home.
"I graduated high school on May 22 and started June 3 at the Huntington Barber College. Dad loaned me the money, $1,997. That included my schooling, board, apartment and bus transportation from Hamlin. I paid back every penny of it.
"I got out of barber school in '58. I was 17. I started barbering in Charleston. The customers were bad. If all barbering jobs were like that one, I'd probably have been on welfare. It was apprentice days, so I had to work for another barber, and it was terrible.
"Haircuts there were $1.25. Here they were $1. I got 75 percent of it, about 90 cents. My board and room cost $18 a week. Sometimes I would have $5 left.
"I saved a little money and bought me a one-way ticket to Miami, Fla., to get away from it. I bummed around in Miami until I ran out of money, about six weeks. I bought a ticket on a Greyhound bus and came home.
"I worked in a St. Albans shop until I opened the shop here. I paid $800 for the business. I borrowed from the Bank of Danville and paid the barber $200 down and $600 remaining. I still have those canceled checks.
"My first shop was where Curry Monument is now. I worked there for 10 years and built this in 1968.
"I've done hundreds of first haircuts. I've got 14 sets of five generations I've cut. I've seen it all in haircuts, from really short to really long. It goes in cycles. I've been through four of them.
"One thing has been constant. Flattops. I like to think I'm about as good as anybody at cutting a flattop.
"My haircuts are $10 now -- and all the tips I can get.
"I shaved a fellow last week. I'm not as efficient at that anymore. Time has taken its toll on my fingers. I can't handle the razor like I used to. In the old days, I used to be able to play a tune on a strop.
"There are three people that people confide in -- their minister, bartender and barber. So I've heard all kinds of stories and problems that I wouldn't repeat to anyone. Well, some I do tell because I've written three books and told stories about the barbershop.
"I started writing stories to preserve things I have heard and seen for my two daughters. Then I got to sending stories to the Lincoln Journal. People would come in and say they enjoyed my story in the paper. So I sent more.
"One day I got to thinking. I had the stories over in that drawer, some written in longhand, some just notes. The notes wouldn't tell my girls anything. So I started writing them out, and I had almost 100 stories, enough to make a book. I found a printing company to help me. I did three books.
"I would have enjoyed being a writer. But my second choice would have been teaching. I had three first cousins who were barbers in Huntington. They offered me a job. Had I gone, I was going to go to Marshall part time. I came here instead. It was easier, a quicker buck.
"I cut more hair the first day I opened in Alum Creek than most barbers do in a week.
"I work Tuesday through Saturday. I have some slow days. Business is off probably 50 percent. There are two reasons. Customers have died off. And salons.
"I've lost control only one time. This customer wanted his hair cut right now. It was about 2:30. I'd been working all day. I was hungry. I said things I shouldn't have said. He was in such a hurry, but as soon as I finished his hair, he sat down over there and started talking to someone.
"Barbering has been good to me. This is the friendliest place in the world. I've had the best clientele any barber could have. I've never dreaded to come to work a day in my life. I've always looked forward to opening that door.
"Why would I want to retire? Guy came in here one day and said he was going to retire and spend rest of his days talking to his neighbors. I told him I'd worked all my life and that's exactly what I've done.
"I will work until I get to where I can't. I'll soon have 53 years here in Alum Creek, and I worked two places before that.
"I wouldn't change a thing. I've got the best wife, two beautiful girls and three of the prettiest granddaughters anyone could have. I've got good health, a comfortable home, a good business, a good community.
"I've been all over the country. My wife and I have toured all 50 states. I've been to three countries. I've never seen a place I'd want to be except here in Alum Creek.
"Two or three years ago, my wife bought cemetery lots. If that is where we end up, I will be 200 feet from where I started."
Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.