January 9, 2010

USA: At 94, Los Angeles barber can still cut it

. LOS ANGELES, California / Los Angeles Times / In the News / January 9, 2010 COLUMN ONE At 94, Los Angeles barber can still cut it As business slows down at Elvie Lewis' barbershop on South Normandie, he's finally thinking of retirement. It's not something his clients like to consider. By Bob Pool Past the iron-mesh security door and the empty, 20-foot-long vinyl waiting bench, Elvie Lewis gives his ancient barber's chair a slap with a striped towel to dust off the last stray wisps of hair from the customer he has just finished. With a weary grin, Lewis plops down in the ornate chair and tugs a lever to make it recline. With his head back and his feet up, he closes his eyes. Elvie Lewis, left, jokes with customer Robert Hunter after a haircut. Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times "It isn't like it used to be. You couldn't even sit down, it was so busy. We kept this place full when I was in my prime," he says softly. If business is a bit slow, Lewis has earned a break. He has been cutting hair for 62 years. At the age of 94, he likes to call himself Los Angeles' oldest barber. These days, he still has a steady hand -- and an even steadier clientele. Longtime customers trickle in Tuesdays through Thursdays; a steady stream comes Fridays and Saturdays. His regulars travel from as far as Palmdale to the three-chair shop on South Normandie Avenue that Lewis has operated since 1952. He started cutting hair in 1947. Longtime customers praise his $15 haircuts and his upbeat attitude. Through the years, Lewis mastered each new style that came along. There was the buzz cut of the 1950s, the bushy Afro of the '60s, the dreadlocks and cornrows of the '70s, the 1980s' mullet, the high-top fade of the '90s and today's high-and-tight. "My favorite style is what they ask for," he says with a grin. In his zip-up barber's smock, the short, cheerful-looking Lewis favors his own receding gray hairline cropped short. Customers say it's his smile and encouraging outlook on life -- just as much as the haircut he gives -- that keeps them coming back. "He started doing this the same year that Jackie Robinson broke into the majors," says Derrick Blakey, 50, who has frequented the shop for 22 years. For much of that time, Lewis has allowed Blakey to sell T-shirts embossed with uplifting sayings such as "Wealth Is Good Health" and "Think Positive" in the shop. "Mr. Lewis is more than a hairstylist. He's an artist," Blakey says. "And he's an encourager. He's supported everything I've done." Luvert Pineset, a 73-year-old retired high-rise maintenance worker who travels from Palmdale for his trims, appreciates Lewis' old-school, gentlemanly manner. "He's a nice man," Pineset explains. "He's still got a steady hand," adds Robert Hunter, 76, a former steelworker from South Los Angeles who has been going to Lewis for more than a decade. Lewis puts in a 7 a.m.-to-5 p.m workday Tuesdays through Saturdays. He's on his feet whenever he's cutting hair, despite the aches and pains that come from living nine decades. He walks with a cane now, and four years ago he turned in his driver's license, swapping it for a simple ID card from the state. Why didn't he retire 30 years ago? "Everybody I know who retires goes out and gets another job. I already have a job," he says. "I'm not a 'honey do' man, you know, 'Honey do this, honey do that.' If I'm going to work at home, I may as well be working here." Lewis' wife of 56 years, Mary, drives him to and from the shop from their home on West 66th Street, about a mile away. "About the only places I go are to church, this barbershop and the VA hospital," he says. "For 45 years, I went on vacation all over the United States and to places like the Bahamas. Now my favorite place is here." Click for audio Slide Born in the Dallas area, Lewis landed in Los Angeles after World War II, where he served "three years, six months and eight days" with the U.S. Army, primarily in the Persian Gulf region. He had worked in Texas before the war as a busboy at a Woolworth's lunch counter and knew that he wanted to work for himself. A stint at a barbershop's shoeshine stand convinced him that he could cut it as a barber. "So after the war I went to barbers' school and then worked as an apprentice for 18 months in Long Beach. After that I opened my first shop near the corner of Long Beach and Vernon avenues. Then I came here," Lewis says. "This is a good location." Between customers, Lewis relaxes in one of his vintage barber chairs as he watches the passing parade outside the shop, tucked between a Mexican restaurant and an auto repair shop. His favorite chair is a circa-1927 model produced by Emil J. Paidar of Chicago, according to the emblem stamped on its stainless steel footrest. He acquired the antique, along with two similar ones, when he bought his shop. Pulling himself out of the chair, Lewis steps slowly toward a shelf lined with bottles of hair tonic and scented after-shave lotions. He rifles through a pile of magazines stacked near an old-fashioned manual cash register and pulls out a worn barber supply magazine. He flips through it until he comes to an ad for an antique chair of the same vintage. It's listed with a sale price of $5,000. Tossing the magazine back on the pile, Lewis rummages beneath a dog-eared copy of the 1996 Official Baseball Register that is used in ballgame discussions with customers, and pulls out another publication. It is a directory, dated 1991, from Second Baptist Church, which Lewis and his wife attend. He proudly opens it to the page containing the couple's picture. "And that's my daughter," he says, pointing to a photo of Elva Brooks posted on the wall above the cash register. Although his shop hasn't changed much since he took it over in 1952, the neighborhood has. The once predominantly African American area now has a heavy Latino presence. Younger men and boys are likely to seek out a spiffier-looking place than one with mid-century mirrors and sinks and ornate chairs. In fact, a pristine, modern hair salon has just opened four doors south of Lewis' shop. "In the old days, all three chairs were busy. I had police, priests, businesspeople all coming in here. I'd tell them, 'If you've got the hair, I've got the time,' " Lewis says. "Now I only have another barber on Fridays and Saturdays." Troy Samwel has been the shop's second barber for six years. "He's a good man, the best. He's like my daddy," Samwel says of his boss as he gives a customer in his mid-20s a buzz cut on a recent Friday. "I'm blessed to work with him -- I've learned so much. He always says to be yourself and mind your own business." As good barbers do, Lewis knows to listen and agree and not debate when customers begin ranting about things such as politics, sports and red-light cameras at intersections. "I've never had any drinking or cussing or smoking in here," Lewis says proudly. "This has been a good shop." Still, Lewis sometimes thinks hard about retiring, even if his customers aren't eager for that to happen. "I'm ready. When I do, I'm just going to stay home and sit down. I won't be looking for any part-time job. If I wanted to do that, I'd keep working here," he says. He hasn't set a price for the place, or targeted a date when he'll lock up the shop for the last time. But, Elvie Lewis says, "make an offer. You can take everything in here but me." [rc] Bob Pool E-Mail: bob.pool@latimes.com Copyright © 2010, The Los Angeles Times