It has been 34 years since NBA Hall-of-Famer Moses Malone took then Sixers rookie Charles Barkley to Woodard’s Hairstyling for his first hair cut in Philadelphia.
But Barkley, who went on to a hall-of-fame and sports analyst career, remembers those conversations as if they happened just yesterday.
“When you go there they are going to give it to you straight,” Barkley, one of the hosts on TNT’s award-winning show, “Inside the NBA,” said over the phone on Thursday afternoon. “It was special to me because they appreciated your success. But most importantly, there was a sense that they felt you represented them out in the world.
“I’m from the South (Leeds, Ala.), and everyone always wanted to talk about basketball because you played in the NBA,” Barkley said. “But the barbershop was a place where we talked about other things that mattered so much more. Like the church bombing in Birmingham. We had real conversations about real life.”
Robert Woodard has operated his barber shop in the Wynnefield section of the city over the last five decades.
He has cut the hair of music titan Michael Jackson, civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, singer Nina Simone and scores of other noted African Americans.
But in the tradition of thousands of other African-American owned barbershops in the city and across the country, Woodard’s serves the dual role of barbershop and surrogate father to young African-American men looking for guidance and direction in life.
It is a tradition more unique to the African-American community than to any other race or ethnic group in the United States.
Woodard got married and had a child at age 17. Years away from manhood, he had to go right to work and take care of his family.
“I’ve never had the chance to do anything other than work. I didn’t realize how under-educated I was,” Woodard said. “But I’ve been blessed to have had conversations with so many wise men who have sat in my chair. They’ve passed words of wisdom on to me and, in turn, I’ve been able to pass words on to the younger generation.
“It’s a blessing,” he added.
Across town at the corner of 15th Street and Susquehanna Avenue in North Philadelphia, Don Williams has operated Don’s Doo Shop since 1965.
Not far from the famous Uptown Theater on North Broad Street — where James Brown, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, and Aretha Franklin were among the regulars for almost 30 years before the venue closed its doors — Williams’ shop was the place for aspiring entertainers to go, often hours before hitting the stage.
Because of its proximity to the Uptown, the entertainment business, according to to Williams, was usually the dominant topic of discussion.
“I didn’t always have input in the conversations but it was general knowledge that you could come here and get inside tips, especially about the entertainment business,” he said. “There were always conversations going on here that would help young people, especially young men, who wanted to find out what they needed to do if they wanted to break into the entertainment industry and other fields.”
The best piece of advice he ever heard passed on in his shop came from former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier, a native of North Philadelphia whom Williams grew up with and who often frequented the barbershop up until his death in 2011.
“When he came in the shop he would hold court because he was the world champion (1970-1973) and back then that carried a lot of weight,” Williams said. “He always told guys, ‘It’s easy for a young man to make money. But when you get older that money is a whole lot harder to make. So hold on to what you make.’ ”
In appearance, Woodard’s and Don’s Do Shop pay homage to a time gone by. The walls are covered with photographs of legendary African Americans, many now deceased, who were regulars. They both reflect fondly on the days when their shops were epicenters of cultural interaction in the Black community.
However, both wonder what the next generation of barbershops will be like. Are the conversations progressive? Will they still attract politicians, entertainers and other influential civic and social leaders from in and around the city for unfiltered discussions?
A few blocks south of Don’s Do Shop, in the 1400 block of Cecil B. Moore Avenue, the answer appears to be, yes.
Nestled between City View Pizza and a Chinese takeout restaurant, it is impossible to miss the massive red fluorescent Mecca Unisex Salon announcing the store that Henry Collins has operated for the last 26 years.
Inside the shop where Henry says he employs 20 barbers, 10 shampoo girls and five stylists, more than 20 flat screen televisions line the walls.
One day, they could be showing a repeat of an NFL game from the 2017 season, but on another day, Collins said, they could all be tuned to a press conference originating from the White House.
The first chair Collins operates is often occupied by City Council President Darrell L. Clarke, state Sen. Sharif Street, retired former middleweight boxing champ Barnard Hopkins or perhaps some other easily recognizable local celebrity.
However, on this day, Collins, 46, is cutting the hair of David Nixon, a Philadelphia Community College student who may become a lawyer.
Their conversations are often about sports and music. However, they also discuss things such as the legalization of marijuana, President Donald Trump’s recent meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un or personal finances.
“At the end of the day, when I’m standing before the Creator, I’m going to be held accountable for every conversation that I hold,” Collins said. “I feel like God is over my right shoulder and he would want me to fill this young man’s head with wholesome information that is going to help him clear the obstacles that stand in his way.”