By Rebekah Martin
The old-fashioned idea of a hometown barbershop usually depicts a man dressed in a white coat, among bantering customers, talking about sports, politics, the weather and town goings-on. A barber’s pole, historically red and white spiraling stripes, has been used as a sign for these businesses since the middle ages.
In Opelika, one must look no further than the long, narrow building at 223 South Eighth Street to find a barber shop that looks and feels like it’s jumped out of a history book.
It’s owner, Phil Gorham, has made his living as a barber since 1985 when he bought the shop from long-time proprietor Jerry Weldon. The building itself has been home to a barbershop for more than three-quarters of a century, all along reflecting the name Downtown Barbershop.
Gorham came from a long line of barbers, dating back to the 1800s. His grandfather, John Alan Gorham and great uncle were both barbers. He said studying barbering and making it his life’s passion came naturally for him. Gorham was born in Opelika in 1950 and lived out his childhood and young adult life about six miles outside of the city. After graduating from Beulah High School, he enrolled in the John Patterson Technical School in Montgomery to study barbering. He fondly remembers one instructor, Joe Davis, telling him he had never seen anyone learn how to cut hair as fast as he did.
Gorham said his customer base is made up of people from the East Alabama area. People who once lived in Opelika and have moved away or those who live in cities where there is no barber shop around visit his shop regularly.
“Folks come in from up above Lafayette, down in Hurtsboro and a lot of men from Auburn come over. I used to have a man come down from Newnan, Ga. That’s what you base your trade on in a barber shop – repeat business, repeat customers,” Gorham said.
Barber shops like Downtown are becoming fewer and further between with upscale salons and day spas encroaching on the grooming business. Gorham said he believes during the 1960s and 70s, when men started wearing their hair in longer styles, is when the industry started seeing a decline.
In the past, Gorham said there have been as many as five barbershops in the downtown area. “A lot of men started going to the beauty shops during that time and the fathers started leaving it up to the mothers to get the little boy’s haircuts, and the mothers would take them to beauty shops,” Gorham said. “I don’t think it was good for the little boys not to come to a man’s place. It’s good for a man to come to a man’s place.”
Gorham also said there are simply fewer men who are studying to become barbers. “Since there are fewer and fewer men taking up the trade, I don’t know if the Downtown Barbershop will survive after me,” he said. “I don’t know, if I can still stand when I’m 80, I’ll probably still be there.”
For 30 years, Gorham has kept the doors of the Downtown Barbershop open to its loyal customers. The only brief hiatus was in October 1987, when Gorham fell and suffered from a broken elbow. The Downtown Barber Shop closed its doors for more than a month while he recuperated. After returning to work, admitting it was sooner than his injury required, Gorham said he had to use his left arm to aid his right with normal functions due to his loss of range-of-motion. “Back when I first broke my elbow, a doctor told me I needed to find a new profession, and I’m still cutting hair and that doctor has since passed away,” Gorham said.
Since that time, Downtown has been open on weekdays and closed on weekends. Now, it is open Tuesday-Thursday from 9 a.m. until there are no more customers.
One of Gorham’s loyal customers, Morris Smith, has been getting his haircuts at Downtown for more than eight years, even after his office relocated from across the street. “He’s a barber’s barber. He’s a good one,” Smith said. “You can’t beat Phil.”
“The trade has slowed down. I’m down to just three days a week now,” Gorham said. “I’m slowing down too. Once you start getting older you need to slow down.” As for the future of Downtown Barbershop, Gorham said he is unsure of what will happen to it once he decides to retire.
“It depends on my health, it just all depends on that, whether or not I’m able to keep standing and working,” he said.
Gorham said he still enjoys his profession after his 30-year career.
“I always enjoy seeing people and talking with them,” he said. “You get to know all about them, their family and their work. It’s on more of a personal basis than somebody just coming in and getting a haircut. It’s just all a part of their life.”
Gorham added that he is very fond of the city he’s called home all his life. “When you’re a lifelong resident of a place, you know everybody and everybody knows you,” he said.
“The small community atmosphere and the closeness of people here, how they get a long so well, is one thing I love about Opelika.”