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Shear devotion

There’s one thing that’s kept James Leatherman in the barbershop business for 57 years, and that’s the conversation.
“I like to talk to people. I learn something new everyday,” he said. “We talk about different things – farming and religion and politics, all different subjects. Now the subject is on gas.”
Conversation has been abundant in Leatherman’s Barbershop since it opened it 90 years ago.
Back then, Leatherman’s father was in charge, and it offered shaves, scalp massages, shampoos, singes and shoe shining. As a child, Leatherman took on the shoe shining responsibilities.
“I was getting a dime for a shoeshine, and my dad was getting a quarter for a haircut,” he said.
The shop has been open in three different locations in downtown Lincolnton. It’s been in its current home on Academy Street since 1940.

Leatherman describes his shop as “cluttered.” The walls are covered with gourds and carved coconuts, and he has an assortment of barber tools as well as a barbershop chair dating back to 1920. Chris Dean / LTN Photo

Leatherman was a teenager when he helped his father build the shop. At the time following in his father’s footsteps was the last thing on his mind.
“I never did think I’d be cutting hair in it then,” he said.
But after a stint in the Pacific during World War II and a job as manager of Dixie Homestead, a grocery store, Leatherman decided to use his G.I. Bill to go to barber school.
“I never gave it a thought until my mother talked to me, and two weeks later I was in barber school,” he said.
His mother wanted him to help out his father, but his wife wanted him to keep his manager’s position.
“I quit, and my wife fussed at me,” he said.
His training in Winston-Salem was quite different from the education his father received cutting hair in the front yard.
“When it wasn’t raining he could cut the hair on the stump,” said Leatherman. “He didn’t give no price. He might get a newspaper or a nickel.”
Later on whenever the two men saw an unfortunate haircut, his father would say “That’s a stump hair cut.”
Throughout his years as a barber, Leatherman has seen some funny styles. He ranks the Beatles mop-top as the craziest fad.
“About the worst I went through was the Beatles,” he said.
During the British Invasion, men would come to his shop saying their wives had requested the haircut.
Leatherman says they would come back a week later complaining about hair around their ears and ordering him to “Cut that off.”
While he’s styled mop-tops, duck tails and trimmed the hair of hippies, there’s one thing Leatherman won’t do.
“I’ve been cutting hair 57 years, and I’ve never done a mowhawk,” he said. “I refuse.”
At the age of 78, it’s unlikely he’ll change his mind. It’s also unlikely he’ll ever retire. Even after a heart attack a few years back, Leatherman returned to the barbershop.
He plans to follow in his father’s footsteps and work until the day he dies.
Things have changed dramatically since he worked side by side with his father. The bench doesn’t always stay filled with men, and the price has climbed from a quarter to $9.
His customers like to tell him “Now you’re charging $9, and I’ve done lost my hair.”
While he does have some older, balding customers, he also serves young men and little boys.
The boys like to look at the coconuts carved as pirates and Indians that hang on the wall. Leatherman has been collecting them on his yearly trips to Florida.
These days, however, his number of young customers has lessened.
“They’re mothers are taking them to the beauty shop,” he said.
Over the years, many men have stopped going to barbershops, and even fewer have chosen to take on the profession.
“There just ain’t nobody going to barber school,” he said. “The old barbershop is fading out.”
As long as Leatherman is alive, however, he’ll keep cutting hair. People depend on him.
“A lot of customers stay for life,” he said.

Coconuts carved as faces line the walls of Leatherman’s Barbershop on Academy Street in Lincolnton. Chris Dean / LTN Photoby Sarah Grano

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