RJ's Barber Shop lends a hair of Mayberry to Town 'N Country

TOWN 'N COUNTRY

Hair flies, but time stands still at RJ's Barber Shop.

No ferns, mood lighting or other trappings of modern salons greet walk-ins. Just a row of barber chairs on a terrazzo floor, dusty display of imported-beer bottles and a bunch of guys.

Etsie Clayton, 60, the newest member of the staff with 14 years at the shop, called "RJ's barber stylist," is usually the only woman in the room.

Owner Richard Jorge bought the shop at 7744 W Hillsborough Ave. 47 years ago. The occasional female customer comes in, but just for a cut — this is no place for fancy styles, perms or coloring. Just a simple clip with a straight razor trim at the back of the neck, the way they've been doing since the mid 1960s.

It costs $12. Cash or check only, please.

"This is a barbershop,'' says customer David Ferraro. "This is what it used to be. This is the way it should be.''

Sports, current events and a good bit of banter dominate the conversation. On this weekday afternoon, Tavian Woods, an 8-year-old waiting to have his long black curls sheared into a Mohawk, provides the entertainment.

An ardent fan of quarterback Tim Tebow, Tavian shouts, "Tebow mania! Tebow is awesome!'' He drops to one knee in the famous Tebow prayer pose, eliciting guffaws from the crowd.

Another barber had just opined that "Tebow stinks,'' an attempt to get a rise out of Tavian.

Tavian looked at him like he was crazy.

"Did he say Tebow stinks?'' piped in Jorge, taking up the defense. "Let's get him!''

It's never boring at RJ's, customer Ramon Perez says. "Sometimes you get a crowd, and no subject's off-limits. If you get offended, maybe this is not the place.''

Perez, 48, has been a customer since the early 1990s. "I like the service. I feel pampered when I come in,'' he says. He particularly likes the straight razor trim at the end of the haircut.

• • •

Emilio Lefler, 15 months old, got his first haircut from Richard last month, making him the third generation of Lefler men to have their locks snipped at RJ's. The toddler's grandpa, also named Emilio Lefler, started coming to RJ's more than 40 years ago, when he ran a pharmacy nearby. At 83, he still gets his hair cut there.

Though little Emilio momentarily looked on the verge of tears, he held it together as Jorge worked.

"He was so delicate with his hands that basically my child didn't even know he was getting a haircut,'' James Lefler says. "My baby didn't even cry. And if he's not happy, he'll let you know.''

Jorge, a thin man of 69 with a goatee and full head of graying hair, tried to retire two years ago, after suffering a pulmonary embolism, but he hated just sitting around the house.

So now he comes in mainly to sit and talk with customers, though he'll pick up the scissors if it gets busy.

"I like hanging around here,'' he says. "A lot of times there will be three or four guys from the old days, and we'll be talking about drag racing and this and that and the other, and it's just great.''

• • •

Most of the barbers have been together longer than many families — Jimmy Jorge, Richard's brother, 37 years; Michael Rutch, 28 years; and Tony Bruno, 20 years.

"All of us kind of get on good,'' says Clayton, adding that it's a "crazy bunch.''

"That helps (me) feel at home.''

Rutch, 63, says the job is hard on the feet; on a busy day, he figures he takes about 10,000 steps. "The older you get, the harder it is.'' The upside is the emotional payoff.

"You become friends with your customers. You know their families. I'm doing the children of children of children.''

Rutch started out at a unisex hair salon but prefers the simplicity of men's cuts. "Women are a little more picky than men,'' he notes. He has buzzed crew cuts, squared flat-tops, trimmed Beatles styles and moved on to fades and shaved heads.

When he first started cutting, he says, a clean-shaven head was a neo-Nazi political statement.

"Now, there's nothing that's not in style.''

Styles evolve, but RJ's remains rooted in the past.

"Hardly a week goes by that somebody doesn't come to the door and say, 'Geez, a good old-fashioned barbershop,' '' says Jorge. "One guy came in and said this is like going back to Mayberry RFD.''

Philip Morgan can be reached at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.

RJ's Barber Shop lends a hair of Mayberry to Town 'N Country 04/12/12 [Last modified: Thursday, April 12, 2012 4:30am]

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