By Russ Lay | Outer Banks Voice on September 11, 2019
A young U.S. Coast Guard member takes a seat with his wife in the store. It’s close to 4:30 and Reynolds Barbershop is approaching closing time. Two more men await their turn while Charles L. Reynolds puts the finishing touches on the client occupying the sole barber’s chair.
It’s fun to look around while you’re waiting.
Along one wall sits two display cases housing old-school razors, blades, and other tools of the trade long abandoned in the modern era of cutting hair. Another wall proudly displays patches from law enforcement, EMS, fire department and military uniforms from near and far. Pictures also adorn the wall, many of Reynold’s family.
You’ll spy two mounted deer heads silently watching the lobby–reminding one that this is a rural area with rural traditions, the massive, modern development along our beaches notwithstanding.
On another wall two adjacent signs proclaim “Jesus Loves You!” and “Quit Cussin’” respectively accented by a few dollar bills draped over one sign—penalties contributed from prior ‘offenders.”
Hiding in the backroom, for customers in the know, is an old popcorn machine that clients can access—a machine that has its own local history-journeying from its original home at a long-closed movie theater on the Beach Road (where Charter Cable is located), to a Shell Station in Nags Head where the ‘new’ 7-11 now sits, then to Kitty Hawk Baptist Church and finally landing on Old Tom Street.
When the young ‘Coastie’ takes his turn he knows exactly what he wants. He asks “C.L to” “Use a #2 on the sides and a #4 on top”-a reference to the clipper attached to the electric razor—each size represents a different depth the razor will shear the hair.
When C.L. is finished the young man looks in the mirror across the room, nods his approval and Reynold’s exclaims “Another perfect haircut by Reynolds!”
Meet C.L. Reynolds, 85 years young and truly an Outer Banks institution. Reynolds Barber Shop is one of the few remaining businesses representing the pre-1970’s Outer Banks that many visitors and locals remember and often lament as these places close and are replaced by rental homes, modern chain stores and the like.
Reynolds Barber Shop is not highly visible.
It’s tucked away on a small lane that is more alley than road– Old Tom Street in the historic downtown Manteo waterfront area. If you know where Ortega’z Restaurant is, Reynolds is in the adjacent alley to the east.
An old bicycle sporting the shop’s name points the way, parked on the corner of Sir Walter Raleigh and Old Tom Street.
Reynolds opened his shop in 1958 in what used to be the lobby area of the old Manteo Ft. Raleigh Hotel—a building that is now slated for demolition.
Reynolds’ son, Ben now operates the one-chair barbershop, which is open six days a week, but his father still holds court on Tuesday’s, taking care of clients and generations of their children, some of whom were getting their hair cut by Reynolds from the shop’s humble beginnings.
We sat down with C.L. and Ben in order to preserve and celebrate the history of this long-established business as well as a profession that never quite recovered from the migration of men from traditional barbershops to salons and strip mall offerings.
Those establishments are a far cry from what used to be any small town’s central place for men of all stripes to gather, talk, and mingle—arguably more popular and egalitarian than any tavern or bar. It’s not just a part of the old Outer Banks being preserved here, it’s also a piece of Americana that would be on an endangered species list alongside drug store soda fountains, drive-in restaurants, and neighborhood groceries if such a list existed.
C.L’s story begins in Columbia, N.C. in 1957 where the Tyrell native returned after serving in the military during the Korean War.
Armed with the benefits of the G.I. bill, he explains that after being drafted and released from the military he could attend college or a trade school. “I chose barber school and it took eight months and over 1500 hours of school to get my license,” CL recounts.
He found work at what was then the only hotel in Columbia. In those days barbershops were often located in the lobbies of hotels in small towns, able to serve locals and hotel guests alike.
“I wasn’t making much money in Columbia,” he relates, “but I felt if I could earn $45 a week, I’d be in high cotton!”
That didn’t happen in Columbia so one day he and his wife visited Manteo and he sat in the hotel barbershop there for over an hour, waiting for the shop owner, Mr. Tom Russell. He agreed to take me on and I came here and started cutting hair.”
One of his early experiences reflects how long Reynolds has been a part of this community.
“A man named Ryan Midgett was waiting for me on a busy day. After I finished with one customer, he was next, but I pulled out a cigarette and Mr. Midgett asked if I intended to smoke it. I said I did and he decided to wait for me to finish. When I was done he sat in the chair and became a regular customer. I’ve now cut hair for seven generations of his family, including Taylor, a sixth-generation member who now works at Kelly’s Automotive in Manteo.”
Reynolds was making $56 or more a week in Manteo, so it wasn’t long before he and his wife moved here permanently. In those days haircuts were 65 cents for children and 75 cents for adults, except on Saturday, when all cuts were 75 cents.
The higher prices on Saturday’s were because it was the busiest day and rather than have children waiting, they were encouraged to come during the week, with the discount offered as an incentive.
While barbers came and went along the Outer Banks, Reynolds’ presence was a constant and he followed one rule he has kept—post your hours and always be open during those hours. His son Ben also observes this simple rule.
That policy and his consistency meant Reynolds had a steady stream of clients from as far north as Duck all the way south through Hatteras and into Ocracoke and the Hyde County mainland.
Eventually, Reynolds got his own shop in 1964 and he moved into an unused part of a large kitchen in what was then the Pig & Phoenix restaurant. They remodeled the section and he opened a three-chair shop, hiring what was likely the first female barber in Dare County.
Soon it was time to move again– to the corner of Old Tom and Sir Walter Raleigh in the building that now houses a retail store. The new building owner’s wife wanted to open an ice cream shop where Reynold’s shop was, so he was moved once more, in 1978, into the present location. It was a two-chair operation and he was joined by his son Ben. Father and son worked side by side for eleven years.
We asked C.L. to tell a few stories from the old days and he obliges.
He did indeed cut the hair of Roanoke Island’s most famous resident– Andy Griffith as well as Griffith’s father. He remembers the first time he cut Andy’s hair he nicked a wart he didn’t see under the scalp, but Andy wasn’t deterred and came back whenever he was in town. “We weren’t close, but he always remembered by name, “ C.L. recalls. Thus, Andy’s first haircut with C.L. resulted in a literal ‘cut’.
He also tells a story about two well-known local denizens, Sen. Marc Basnight and Manteo Board of Commissioners member Hannon Fry.
“When Marc became a politician I wasn’t surprised. One day, when he was about 12 he came in with Fry. He was babysitting Fry and while waiting, Fry announced he was going to use his haircut money to buy a toy instead. Marc looked at Fry and said ‘fine by me’, Reynolds remembers.
“But there’s more to the story. Not only did he make Hannon happy, but the only place Fry could buy his toy was also from the general store Marc’s grandfather owned!”, Reynolds concluded– adding a business angle to the old political axiom of giving the people what they want.
As hairstyles changed he sometimes required permission from the parents when young boys came in looking for non-traditional cuts. Hannon Fry pops up again in another story when he told Reynolds he wanted a mohawk. Reynolds required permission from Fry’s parents and Fry’s mom promptly informed Reynolds to cut the boys hair the way he wanted “or we’ll find another place to go.” Reynolds complied.
He never had to advertise much and scheduling wasn’t too hard ‘back in the day.’
For some time after he moved here, Manteo and the rest of the Outer Banks lacked a dial telephone system and Arnette, the local phone company operator filled in the details.
If a customer was absent for his usual haircut, Reynolds would pick up the phone and the conversation would flow along these lines, “Arnette, I’d like to speak to Frank’ and she’d tell you ‘Frank’s gone to Elizabeth City today and won’t be back until late afternoon.”
Missing customer mystery solved and just as efficient as texting or seeing where one might have revealed their location on Facebook.
Both father-and-son says word-of-mouth has always been their best marketing tool, although Ben now uses Facebook to post some pictures and is cognizant of how online review sites like Yelp and Trip Advisor can help or harm a business.
It’s obvious C.L.Reynold’s loves his profession and Ben has acquired the same deep appreciation for the way barbering creates a strong bond with the customers.
“I love cutting children’s hair and then their children’s and so on, down the line. It’s been a great ride and I’ve made so many friends and you become part of their family,” he says. This family connection spanning generations is rare in business today as few survive long enough to span generations and appears to be the aspect of his business he finds most rewarding.
Reynolds has cut the hair of many Coast Guardsmen and first responders over the years, many of whom have moved on but still return to see him when they are in the area.
Ben now has his own long-time clients and the two men share to this day that same geographic footprint—Duck to Ocracoke—that was their draw in the ’70s.
And they each have their own regulars. For example, Manteo mayor and former Dare commissioner Bobby Owens uses C.L. and will drive to Columbia if he can’t see him on Tuesday. His son R.V. Owens, a well-known local businessman, gets his hair cut by Ben.
Regular visitors also include out-of-area property owners and the occasional tourist.
Ben relates that he’s been cutting the hair of two brothers, one from Manhattan and the other from Colorado who come to the shop together when they’re in town. The brothers own a residential development on the beachside of the county.
There’s also some friendly rivalry and behind-the-back storytelling between the two men.
C.L. tells me from time to time a customer will relate “I got my haircut from Ben.” C.L’s stock reply is “Don’t worry. I can fix that later!”
And Ben let us know a little C.L trivia. The “L” in his middle name is his middle name; just like Harry S Truman, there isn’t a name that the ‘L’ abbreviates.
And while C.L’s birth certificate says he was born on August 18, he considers August 17 his birthday because his mother told him that was the day he was born, “and dad figures his mon knew better than the folks who filled out the document.”
So, C.L technically has two birthdays.
C.L supposedly retired a few years ago and moved back to Columbia, but in reality, he’s still going strong.
He drives back to Manteo every Tuesday to attend to his Dare clientele.
The rest of the week, including Saturday’s, C.L cuts hair in Columbia where he’s the youngest barber. You read that correctly. The owner who hired him and is still actively cutting hair is 102 years old.
On Sunday C.L pastors at Engelhardt Baptist Church. He was ordained in 1989 and has also pastored at Kitty Hawk Baptist Church, Outer Banks Baptist, Swan Quarter Baptist, Creswell, and others, typically on an interim basis.
While both Ben and C.L state the business has never recovered from the changes wrought by the mop-headed Beatles invasion and the trends that followed them, the shop is busy enough that in the summer it’s typically crowded and the rest of the year, there might be a small wait time.
But this is a barbershop, not a hair salon, so if you peek in and see three people waiting don’t be deterred. These haircuts are typically quick so you’re not in the chair long. This isn’t a place for men to get their hair styled. If you dream of looking like Bon Jovi from his hair band days, a salon might be a better choice.
But if you want a traditional men’s haircut and beard trim in an even more traditional environment, this is a place to try. You’ll be welcome as soon as you enter, and even if you have to wait, you’ll find the regular customers will talk to you and there’s a friendly, intimate banter among the visitors and locals, many of whom just poke their head in the door to exchange some pleasantries or small talk.
It’s one of my favorite regular stops and I look forward to my time there. If you want to start a new family tradition, Ben and C.L are there for you.
Oh yeah, one other quirk. While the shop prefers cash, Ben will take credit cards. But if you come on Tuesday, bring cash. Ben relates that C.L. “never has and never will” take plastic for payment.
Reynolds Barber Shop
303 Old Tom Street
Manteo, NC 27954
Hours: Monday-Friday: 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (closes for lunch at various times).
Saturday: 8:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Ben works Monday and Wednesday-Saturday, C.L. works Tuesday.
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Reynolds-Barber-Shop-119035994814501/
Cash only on Tuesdays.
Cash preferred other days but credit and debit cards accepted Mon and Wed-Sat.