The last time James “Cotton” Sharpe let anyone other than a barber cut his hair, his father put a bowl on top of his head to trim a perfect circular line around his son’s Afro.
That was in the early 1970s. And when Sharpe obtained his driver’s license as a 17-year-old, one of the first places he drove to was Robert Bower’s barber shop.
Bowers is the only man he’s ever trusted with his hair.
In January, Bowers celebrated 50 years of cutting hair in Mooresville. Some of his clients, who have been visiting the Friendly Barber Shop on McLelland Avenue for decades, have similar stories of trust respect, and admiration for a man they view as a community leader and pillar to society.
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On March 26, Sharpe and a committee of other longtime customers will host a tribute dinner to honor Bower’s golden anniversary. It is free and open to the public and is being held at the Robert L. Bowers Fellowship Auditorium, a banquet hall on Rocky River Road owned by the namesake, one of his several business ventures in addition to his barber shop.
“Robert has created a friendly environment,” said Willie Davis, a 62-year-old Statesville resident who’s been a loyal customer of Bowers’ for almost 25 years. “You can express yourself and you just might learn something while you’re here. I think that’s why people keep coming back.”
“I’m a people person,” says Bowers, 75. “Being as such, you meet a lot of people. Cutting hair is a craft. You pick up different styles. You cut to a head and making it look nice is really rewarding.”
Bowers, the man many of his older and younger customers call “Uncle Robert” or “Pops,” came to Mooresville in 1966. He grew up in Hartwell, Ga., and his family moved to Salisbury in 1960.
That was the year Bowers bought his first hair cutting kit – for $13 – and started cutting hair at home. He graduated from Winston-Salem’s Modern Barber College in 1965.
Bowers met a girl in Greensboro who eventually introduced him to Rufus Hughes, a Mooresville barber who hired him. Less than 10 years later, Bowers and another barber, Leon “June” Frontis, Jr., bought out Hughes and moved the shop to its current McLelland Avenue location.
Over the years, the Friendly Barber Shop has been a hub for socialization and conversations, running the gamut from sports to politics to religion. Talking about his childhood, 66-year old Jerry Smith says “The old folks used to tell jokes where they would tell us to go outside.”
When the current shop opened in the mid-70s, patrons talked about Muhammad Ali. Today, they talk about the Carolina Panthers’ chance of winning the Super Bowl and whether Cam Newton deserves to win the league’s MVP award.
A lot has changed over Bowers’ 50 years of cutting hair. When he started, 90 cents got you the trim you wanted. Today, it costs $12. And styles have come and gone, and in some cases, come again.
In his early days, when Mooresville was more of a textile town, Bowers says customers used to visit before and after their shifts. Today, the shop still opens at 5 a.m., the time of day some of the mill workers used to come in before their day shift started.
Bowers says it would be too difficult to estimate how many haircuts he’s made over the years. These days, he says he averages about four cuts per hour. He’s at the shop four days a week, 12 hours per day. You can do the math.
Business has been steady over the years despite economic fluctuations. Things slowed down a bit in the 70s when people were wearing their hair longer but Bowers and the Friendly Barber Shop have always endured. The only kind of recession that affects a barber long-term is the recession of a man’s hairline.
In 1998, June Frontis died, less than a year after his grandson, Chad Freeman, started cutting hair at the shop. The 40-year-old Freeman has been Bowers’ colleague ever since.
“After my grandfather died, Robert taught me different cuts, how to get my speed up, and how to talk to people,” Freeman said.
In 2011, Bowers doubled the size of the building, adding a section designated for someone to specialize in women’s hair. So far, it hasn’t caught on.
Sitting in one of the three barber chairs and facing the opposite wall, a customer can catch a glimpse of a couple pieces of cardboard on which hundreds of photographs are applied. If you look hard enough you can see different photos of one of Bowers’ daughters with Mike Tyson and Dan Quayle.
Most of photos are school pictures of children, faded by the passing decades. They are the ones that invoke Bowers’ favorite memories.
“I’ve worked five generations,” he says. “Now I’m working on some people’s children’s children’s children. With a town like Mooresville, you have a lot repeat customers.”
Joe Habina is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to go?
For information about the tribute to Robert Bowers, call Cotton Sharpe at 704-657-5256.