50 years, no plans to trim barbershop
Carly Q. Romalino, Courier-Post Published 11:51 a.m. ET Aug. 17, 2017 | Updated 10:47 a.m. ET Aug. 21, 2017
CLAYTON - A gold paper banner — "Cheers to 50 Years" — hung above Paul Bryant as he lowered his head to lead a prayer.
A heated Eagles versus Cowboys dispute hushed inside his Academy Street barbershop, and electric hair clippers quit buzzing at the 81-year-old reverend's request to pray.
in the shop — Bryant's children and grandchildren — held hands with customers whose arms poked from black capes.
"Everybody who comes in that door now, you are family," Bryant — or "Pop," as his barber's smock indicates — began.
It was an anniversary blessing reflecting on the rough start in the neighborhood, and the lasting business that employs his children and grandchildren.
Bryant's Barber Shop opened on Academy Street in Clayton in 1967, the peak of America's Civil Rights movement.
He survived 50 years in the rural part of the borough on the edge of Clayton bordering Glassboro and Elk Township. But in the 1960s, constant damage to his building was a major sign the Bryants, black business owners, were not welcome.
"You kept us," he preached.
"Kept us!" his sister Florence Williams, 86, chimed in from a barber chair, her hair half braided.
"You kept us," Bryant repeated. This time, his voice wavered, tears pushing from his tightly closed eyes.
He squeezed tightly the hands he held.
"We couldn't have made it if it hadn't been for God."
Bryant built the shop "from the ground up."
"They tried to destroy this place, but God has his arms around it," he said.
He graduated from Clayton High in 1954. Initially he followed his father into construction. He went to school to be an arc welder, later working in the New York City Shipyard on the USS Kitty Hawk, the last ship worked on in the yard before it closed.
"I said, 'I'm tired of the sparks hurting me,' " Bryant remembered.
"I'm going to build a (barber) shop."
He welded during the day, and went to Tri-City Barber School in Philadelphia at night.
The shop opened in August 1967. Cinder blocks busted down the front door — twice, Bryant recalled.
"Come up here the next day, somebody tore the gas line down in the back of the shop and tried to burn it down," he remembered tearfully.
His grandson Mike Bryant, 40, didn't take his eyes off the client's head he buzzed, but he listened to every word of his Pop's history. It's a story the third-generation barber has heard for decades.
"As a kid I would be here running around," Mike Bryant said.
"In 1967, a lot of stuff was going on. He fought through all that for his family."
He works with his Pop, his dad Cortez Bryant and aunt Marilyn Sharpe. Cortez and Marilyn — and four other siblings — grew up in the shop, too.
Cortez Bryant worked his way up from a station in a small back room where he cut while he was in barber school to the front chair, the top spot. It's a station by the front window that comes with the responsibility of greeting customers — new ones and longtimers — and answering the phones.
Sharpe started in the shop at 19. That was 35 years ago. Her kids — two boys and a girl — once toddled between chairs and napped in a playpen in the corner.
"They wouldn't have a job if it wasn't for me," the elder Bryant said.
"I'm so glad I was able to live to see this."
Three years ago, a sudden health scare nearly dashed his hope of a 50-year milestone.
Bryant looked up from the head he worked on, and saw his face in the mirror. It was "twisted," he remembered.
He was rushed to the emergency room.
God, he said, gave him a second chance.
Despite the stroke, his hands remain steady. And his regular customers — some sitting in his chair twice a week for decades — keep coming in.
Bryant doesn't plan to ever retire.
That's good news for Roger Williams, a Marlton man who drives an hour to the shop every week to sit in Bryant's chair. It's a weekly ritual he's kept up for decades.
"If I move to California, I'll still be back every week to get my hair cut," Williams joked.
"There's no rap music and no nonsense."
A sign over the long wall of mirrors reminds clients to "control" their speech. Cursing and profane language is not permitted.
But spirited and friendly sports debates are encouraged and inevitable.
"This is an old-school barbershop," the reverend said.
"There are just as many white people as black. Respect me. Respect everybody."
Carly Q. Romalino; (856) 486-2476; firstname.lastname@example.org