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Tucson Salvage 

Neighborhood barber stays popular by keeping it old-school

click to enlarge Johnelle Hunter works the head of Cameron Purdie.

Brian Smith

Johnelle Hunter works the head of Cameron Purdie.

Whenever Johnelle Hunter swings his arms behind his back, shifting his electric clipper from one hand to the other, it's like a well-rehearsed soft-shoe worthy of some 1960's Motown Revue stage, such is the swift, graceful movement of his arms, hands and legs. A knee lifts, and then the other, as he side steps over the clipper's power cable, completing a quarter-turn.

He's built like a member of The Temptations too—long-limbed with narrow-shoulders—but you can somehow imagine his powerful yet slender fingers, with those impeccably manicured nails, cupping the top of a human head and lifting it straight up off of a neck. In a pressed uniform of khaki slacks and matching button-down shirt and russet leather shoes, he's as put-together as old David Ruffin, complete with specs and tight graying curls. His is an area of outdated style that never goes out of style. You just can't fake this kind of real.

He's on his feet all day, no mean feat considering this gentleman turns 80 in December, and the big toe on his right foot was lost to an infection decades ago, which not only informs his movements to a degree, but makes it even more challenging to carefully negotiate the 15 or 20 heads he sees to on any given workday.

It's the last day of summer and Hunter is trimming the close-cropped hair of Ryan Clowser, a University of Arizona physics major, and former high school football star from Sierra Vista. Two customers are seated on waiting chairs near the entrance.

Without query, Clowser comments on Hunter's work: "He gives the best haircut I've ever had." Then he says, "It's also really cheap here."

click to enlarge Johnelle Hunter shaves another customer. - BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith
  • Johnelle Hunter shaves another customer.

Yes, it's Clowser's second-ever visit to Hunter's, and he's not about to say anything disparaging about the guy holding his head hostage with a straight razor. Still, it's hard to argue with Clowser. Anyway, an "adult" haircut here sets you back 10 bucks, and Hunter can't remember when he last raised the price. It's been years.

And that's not surprising. In the context of a world of infinite consumer choices based on vanity, Hunter's small, homespun barbershop could be—or is—from a land that time has all but erased. Striped paper graces the south wall above four barber chairs, mirrors and fabulous clusters of haircutter accouterments, sprays and ephemera. There's a mid-'70s Pepsi vending machine where a soda costs 50 cents (the machine recently sputtered out—Hunter's waiting on the repairman), a few placards that emphatically read "No profanity!" and scattered about are magazines that suggests a dude-heavy customer base: Men's Journal, Sports Illustrated, Outdoor, etc.

"Oh, we do get women," Hunter says, tossing out a number that's quickly calculated by the folks in the shop to be about three percent of his total customer base. Notable regulars over the years have included ex pro-football players such as Ron Gardin, and former Tucson Vice Mayor Charles Ford, as well as a colorful assortment of preachers, lawyers, and politicians.

The barber pole that protrudes from the non-descript olive-green façade outside is hard to spot it's almost secretive, like it might actually represent bloodletting and tooth extraction as it did in the Middle Ages. There's no exterior sign that lets you know that this place actually is Hunter's Barber Shop, or that it's called anything at all. But Hunter has all the consumer action that he and a couple of barbers (including his son Lamar, a physical education teacher who works here Saturdays) can handle, and the shop thrives on throwback street cred and word-of-mouth (social media? Heaven forefend!). To him, the Internet is some newfangled technology that has little to do with, nor could it ever enhance, the kind of human interaction he trades on in his line of work.

Though he's been at this North Stone Avenue location near downtown for 26 years (prior to that, the shop was located in central Tucson), the place feels steeped in a tradition of a million crewcuts belonging to men who only know each other's first names, and who wear the same aftershave workday after workday, and who aren't so vain as to calculate to impress others. It's also a tradition that began fading years ago to the kind of moneyed folk who move in to neighborhoods like these, displace its inhabitants and take over damn near everything. But it's also a tradition that symbolized Hunter's independence from an even older idea, one that involved taking orders from higher ups.

He talks of his life as he trims, shaves and cuts, and he's so nerve-calmingly spoken, with a hint of a Southern inflection, that you sometimes strain to hear him.

He's been cutting hair for more than 60 years, but not always for a living. He grew up in northern Louisiana and experienced ugly southern racism firsthand. He and his six brothers (there were no sisters) attended segregated schools and his granddad was a sharecropper who had 24 sons and and daughters from two marriages, and "maybe some others."

"So your grandfather was a stud," chimes in one waiting customer.

"He was, for real," Hunter laughs. He pauses. Then he adds, with a gentle shrug, "Those were different times."

Hunter's dad owned an 80-acre farm. "We lived off crops and the animals we raised," he says. Dad sold the farm because, "it just wasn't easy to make a living on a farm that small. But we never went hungry."

The family moved straight to this cowboy hicktown from Louisiana in 1951, after two of his brothers, both military men, had relocated here in the '40s. (He had an aunt suffering from tuberculosis who had moved here for her health before that.)

He and his brothers sang together, having grown up immersed in gospel music and spirituals in Louisiana. They formed a vocal gospel group called The Silver Wings when Hunter was still knee-high. Old recordings of the group reveal a heady, persuasive, non-secular sound built on complex harmonies that'd do The Temptations proud. The brothers never released a record but they performed in churches and schools all over Tucson in the '50s and later.

click to enlarge BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith

Hunter's pop was also a minister, and was soon pastoring his own church in Nogales, Arizona, and later, the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Tucson (where Hunter is currently a deacon, and sings in the choir.) Hunter graduated from Tucson High in '55, and after a yearlong stint in the Marine Reserves, he joined the Air Force, stayed on about four years. (He tells stories of setting up a makeshift barber shop in a supply room at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina in the late '50s.) He then went to work for American Airlines. First as a baggage handler, then ticket agent, and worked there 28 years, during which time he married twice, raised eight children, and opened his Hunter's Barber Shop "sometime in the 1960s." He also opened a barbeque joint alongside the barbershop (using recipes passed down from his father), but that didn't last. "It was too much," he says, "with two other jobs." He retired from the airlines in '87, and focused solely on his businesses.

Clowser's eyelids get heavy, so soothing is Hunter's handiwork. He returns the clipper to its holster that's hanging from the side of the counter, one of a half-dozen in a row, and chooses another, which is slightly smaller. He slips a toothy chrome blade into it, fires it up, and ambidextrously alternates hands, going for Clowser's sideburns and a precise trim around his sturdy hairline. Minutes later he reaches for a clear spray bottle half-filled with a mystery elixir, which he sprays on Closwer's hair while working his fingers into the scalp. Then he lifts an air hose from a nearby wall and blows the trimmings from Clowser's scalp, neck and throat.

Between clients he produces an obituary that shows his grandmother's sister died in 1972. It also reveals that she died at the age of 127. Yes, she was 127 years old. And many in Hunter's family lived well into old age. For example, his grandfather died at 112, and two of his uncles lived to be 108 and 109. His dad died at 98. He briefly shares a story about how he lost a 30-year-old son in the mid-'90s. He'd rather not revisit the circumstances surrounding the death, but he thinks of his son every day.

Listen close and you'll hear Hunter pepper his sentences with half-invisible truths, turns of soft-spoken insights born of the kind of wisdom one earns when they age with certain grace, and when they don't forget, and he brackets subjects like racism and loss and murder in terms of acceptance or forgiveness or both. "It's the only way the world can work."

You'll also hear Hunter sing or hum along to all sorts of songs that stream through the shop's little stereo speakers, whether it's new-country Toby Keith or soulful Bill Withers or a traditional gospel number performed by Hezekiah Walker. He knows the words.

I ask Hunter how long he sees himself running his shop?

He scrunches his face, lets out a surprising room-owning guffaw, and responds with vague "Oh ... a few more years or so."

Cameron Purdie, 39, has been a Hunter customer since he was a teen. He settles into the chair and Hunter shakes open the barber cape and fastens it at the back of Purdie's neck. No words are spoken. The barber knows Purdie's needs, and he's soon humming quietly to Al Green while applying white shaving cream to the side of Purdie's buzzed head. The afternoon is coming down, shadows on Stone Avenue are growing longer and melancholic, and everything that's important is happening right now, right here inside Hunter's Barber Shop.

click to enlarge BRIAN SMITH
  • Brian Smith

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