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Last cut for neighborhood barber after 70 years in West Philadelphia

Lynette Hazelton - Philly Inquirer

Joseph Harley came from North Philly, around Erie Avenue. Bobby Hopson drove up I-95 from Delaware. And Joseph Butler walked from around the corner — all to get a last cut and say goodbye to James A. Rice, who is closing the West Philadelphia barbershop his father started 70 years ago.

Rice opened early on New Year’s Eve to a steady stream of customers who came in for their last cut, to share a farewell toast and lament the loss of a beloved neighborhood institution.

“I’m happy, but sad,” said Butler, who didn’t want to begrudge Rice, 75, a much-deserved retirement after cutting hair for 60 years, but was at a loss for how to replace the environment Rice, and his father before him, had created in Rice’s Barbershop in the 5700 block of Media Street.

After moving from Germantown four years ago, Butler needed to find a place to get his twice-monthly haircut and he stumbled upon Rice’s Barbershop. “I came in and I really, really fell in love.”

Now he is wondering if he can ever replace what he found at Rice’s Barbershop.

“Where next? I don’t want to go to a jitterbug shop,” Butler said, referring to barbershops with young barbers and clientele. “I want a more mature environment.”

Hopson, who since COVID-19 has sported a shaved head, joined in the merrymaking but can’t even remember when he first started getting his hair cut by Rice. For sure it was in 1981, when he got out of the Navy, but he thinks it could have been even earlier, in the ‘70s.

“It was like family. We were continually laughing and talking and it kept the shop lively. It’s a social place and you can’t replace it.”

Rice started cutting hair at 14, apprenticing under his father before he got his license at 18. It was less a personal choice than a parental requirement, Rice recalled. “It wasn’t a question of [me being able to say] no. Let’s just say I was inspired.”

He cut hair during his years at Overbrook High School. He cut hair while attending Cheyney University. He cut hair while he taught social studies at West Philadelphia High School. He cut hair as he earned two master’s degrees — one in administration and another in elementary education. He cut hair after he retired from the Philadelphia School District 15 years ago.

Along the way Rice has learned that to make a barbershop feel like a haven he had to take the time to discover what the customer wanted and make the customer feel respected as well as comfortable. In the process, Rice said, the barbershop prospered.

“If you provide the service then the money will come. And if you are consistent with that, the business will grow. You won’t get rich, but you’ll grow.”

“I remember the time you had to take a number and bring a lunch,” said Keith Brown of the crowds who used to come to the shop. Brown became a customer about 24 years ago. “The barbers themselves would help you with personal problems. It was more than just a barbershop.”

Barbershops have become more important as a site to reach and engage Black men because of the casual and engaging atmosphere. In discussing his research based in Black barbershops, Howard Stevenson, a professor of urban education and African studies at the University of Pennsylvania, has said: “Black men will share things in a barbershop they won’t tell a therapist or a preacher. The stories they tell are very intimate and personal, and these are the places you want to be to help people deal with emotional and physical trauma.”

“I was the first woman that James cut,” said Jule Walker, who met Rice in the early ‘60s when they attended Overbrook. Walker remembers accompanying her grandfather to the barbershop when she was a girl and overhearing the sports conversations that somehow resulted in her becoming a lifelong Dallas Cowboys fan to the consternation of a few of the barbers.

As she sat amid the bustle of the shop, her short style perfectly coiffed and her blue Cowboys scarf around her neck, Walker said she also learned the importance of the barbershop as an engaging environment for Black men. “I saw why men go to barbershops. They go to fellowship — to have a spiritual fellowship.”

Rice’s 97-year-old mother, Mary, joined in the retirement celebration of her oldest son because she was there the day the shop opened in 1953. Her husband had been a barber down South, but the couple were seeking more opportunities than Spartanburg, S.C., afforded a Black man in the ‘50s.

So they came north.

In those early days, the family also lived upstairs from the shop, which helped, Mary Rice recalled, because it was slow going at first. “Haircuts were cheap then,” she said, adding that her husband never entertained the notion to quit.

They were also the first African Americans on their block. Mary Rice said there weren’t any hostilities. In fact, she recalled, they had a mixed clientele in those early years. “Just like my husband taught James, he taught me how to shave. White guys waited on Saturday morning for me to shave them.”

However, within a year of the shop’s opening, the block had almost only Black residents as white flight took hold.

What has remained constant has been Rice’s Barbershop.

Rice said he had a responsibility to help maintain the community, but he also felt it was time to spend more time with Lynda, his wife of 47 years, and tend to his own well-being.

“As an individual you can get caught up in providing service and lose yourself sometimes,” Rice admitted, but added that the little barbershop has provided him with a very good life and a lifetime’s worth of friends.


The work produced by the Communities & Engagement desk at The Inquirer is supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project's donors.

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