CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - At 5:15 a.m., Kay Wesley starts cutting hair and doesn’t stop until her line of customers dissipates. Nowadays, that usually means 5 p.m., but when she started cutting hair about 50 years ago, it was much later.
Customers revere her. They’ll tell you she isn’t like other barbers you’ve been to, she doesn’t talk on the phone or fiddle around when she works. She’s focused. She’s a hard worker.
On June 1, an intimate group of loyal customers helped Wesley celebrate her 70th birthday. Ask any of them and they’ll say the same: Haircuts change, but Kay Wesley doesn’t.
“When you walk out of this barbershop, you can look at anybody’s hair and you know it’s Kay’s haircut,” said Eloise Strum, friend and customer of 39 years. “Nobody uses razors, nobody uses scissors anymore - she uses that.”
Wesley’s shop is tucked between First Baptist Church and the Best Western hotel on Shrewsbury Street. It hasn’t got a fancy name, just The Barbershop.
There, everyone seems to know everyone - and that’s the way Wesley likes it. Once a customer starts coming to her, they keep coming back for years.
“They grow up, then they bring their kids in here,” Wesley said. “The kids grow up, they bring their kids in here.”
Even when a customer moves away, most eventually come back for at least a trim.
Wesley said she has customers from Columbus, Ohio, to Richmond, Virginia.
“They would get off the interstate and stop and get their haircut before they go home to see their mother or their wives,” Wesley said. “I see them first before they do.”
Ronald Calloway, 62, started coming to Wesley when he was 14 years old. He worked hard picking blueberries to save up the $2 to buy a bus ticket to bring him from Chesapeake to Wesley’s shop.
Others, like Eloise Strum, keep coming back because “no one does it quite like Kay.”
In 2005, an illness caused Wesley to hang up her scissors. She had to turn away customers for a while, but folks like Strum wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“When she got sick, we all tried somebody different,” Strum said. “But it ain’t the same.”
Strum said she and five others hunted Wesley down at home, asking, “Kay, could we just come over to your house?” She couldn’t say no.
Wesley’s husband, Robert, set up a small room in the basement where she could cut hair. After more and more people discovered the secret shop, more wanted to come. She eventually had to come back to work.
More than once, Strum said she came to the shop at 4:30 a.m. to get a haircut before work, only to find a line of people already ahead of her.
At Wesley’s shop, cutting hair is a family affair. Wesley gave many kids their first haircut, including her great-nephew, Adam Craig, who now cuts hair in the chair beside her. In the 1960s, her sister talked her into going to barber school. There were 10 kids in the family, five cut hair and five worked in a chemical plant.
“We all made a living cutting hair.” Wesley said, adding that if she could go back and try it again, she wouldn’t change a thing.
When Wesley started cutting hair in 1966, everyone wanted an afro. “I was so glad when they went out,” she said.
Now, everyone wants a fade. Regardless of what they want, Wesley is happy to make them look their best.
She got her first job at Kelly’s Barbershop on Court Street, and then moved to a place on Washington Street.
Now, she works in a small shop on Shrewsbury Street.
Wesley said she and Ella Jean Martin, a woman who is deaf and cuts hair in the shop next door, have been close for years. During the birthday party, Wesley scurries next door, grabs Martin’s hands and pulls her into the group.
Once inside, Martin is all smiles. Communicating with her hands, she holds up four fingers and a fist, then points to Wesley.
“Yes, we’ve been working next door to each other for 40 years,” Wesley said. It takes her a minute, but she understands.
But what about retiring for good? Don’t ask that too loudly. Strum, Calloway and others don’t want to know.
“We’ll see,” Wesley said, smiling.
Information from: The Charleston Gazette, https://www.wvgazette.com
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