Feb. 23, 2015
A clock hangs on the chipped, gray wall. It tick, tick, ticks ceaselessly, a nagging reminder of change.
With every passing second, it seems something new changes in Nashville these days. A glossy condo complex springs from the earth; yet another neighborhood gets gentrified. The next big restaurant opens; the last big restaurant tanks.
In the midst of such breakneck development, some fear Nashville may lose its rich heritage.
But as long as one business’s doors stay open, the Nashville of yesteryear should be just fine.
Across the street from Vanderbilt University Commons sits a quaint, unassuming little barber shop. Speeding down 21st Avenue, it proves almost impossible to spot.
But somehow people do find this place, because a five-minute walk from hip Hillsboro Village can whisk them back 50 years.
All it takes is a trip to the Oxford Barber Shop.
The shop, at first glance, doesn’t offer anything extraordinary. On the exterior, large red letters simply proclaim “Barber Shop.”
Friendly red, white and blue text on the ceiling-height windows might as well be black and white for all the nostalgia it evokes.
Oh, and of course there’s a barber’s pole.
And just like a barber’s pole–which paradoxically always spins both up and down without ever actually going anywhere–the store represents somewhat of a contradiction of its own.
Standing in contrast to today’s trends, Oxford may have shifted with the times, but it never got carried away by them.
Sure, the shop updated and modernized a little across the decades–a sleek TV here, a new speaker there.
But, at its heart, the shop which opened its doors 54 years ago really hasn’t changed at all.
And Carson Gould, the manager of the shop, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’re just a traditional ol’ barber shop,” he said. “No froo-froo stuff.”
Gould, whose bright eyes and learned face bear well the stories implied by the building’s age, has managed and cut hair at Oxford for the past 21 years.
The third manager of the store, he and his family traveled all the way from Michigan to escape its bitter winters.
But as he sits upon a plain wooden bench outside, gazing upon industrial white maintenance trailers, his arms are folded against the cold.
Those trailers, he related in his calm, pleasant voice, hadn’t always taken up space there. They arrived as a package deal with the location, Vanderbilt Medical Center.
As it and Nashville grew, construction devolved from an occasional nuisance to a staple. And so the trailers stayed.
Gould, eyes still set firmly in the distance, tells of the difficulties construction has presented to the shop.
Every morning, a barber must put out a “Free Parking” sign so people don’t get confused by Vandy’s multiple garages.
“They changed the parking lot and added the trailers,” he said. “Parking hurt us.”
Yet, the store remains.
He talks about the tower under which the store sits and to which it owes its name. The Oxford House, a muddy brown Vanderbilt multipurpose complex, doesn’t exactly draw the eye.
As such, “there’s always talks about tearing it down,” he said, but a recently renovated credit union on the bottom floor thwarted the efforts.
So, the store remains.
As Gould not-so-lovingly critiques the trendy hair boutiques which bear no resemblance to his beloved barber shop, the smallest hint of snark reaches his kind eyes.
But through all the progress and in spite of all the trends, Oxford Barber Shop remains a testament to one, simple idea: Give a person a good cut and a good time, and they’ll always come back for more.
Of course, low prices don’t hurt, either.
A standard haircut runs at a relatively reasonable $18. Or, customers can opt for a face shave for 30 bucks.
The cheapest option? A goatee trim, for three.
Eschewing the artsy chalkboards and designer signs which have become earmarks of a modern local business, the price list at Oxford is nothing but a laminated piece of paper slapped on a cabinet.
But Oxford does offer something more than lean prices and shaved heads.
“It’s the quality of the hair cuts and the personality,” said Gould. “Who wants to go back to a grump?”
Without even mentioning the shop’s five barbers, whose work stations feel as distinct and diverse as the men who own them, the place packs plenty of personality. What it lacks in imminent charm, it makes up for with charming anachronism.
Take, for example, the room-length shelf sprawling behind the classic black barber’s chairs. It teems with every traditional tool of the barbering trade imaginable.
But suspended above it, serving as Oxford’s modern jukebox, hangs an iPhone streaming an adult alternative Pandora station.
Take a gander at the beige blinds adorning the shop’s massive windows, which function as a wall for the entire back half of the room. Forget throwback–these groovy things come straight out of the 60s.
Interestingly enough, they now share space with two flat-screen TV’s mounted on the glass.
Or, direct your attention to the unused antique wooden cash register over in the corner. No one knows its age and no one can find out, Gould said.
Right next to it–a compact card reader.
The very look of the place captures both the change Nashville has increasingly become known for and the desire expressed by some of its residents for it to remain exactly the same.
And if the depth and diversity of Oxford’s clientele is any indication, it’s a catching concept.
On a busy day, Oxford can provide around 90 haircuts, all different cuts for all different people.
From the middle-aged professional needing a corporate cut to impress both the boardroom and the bedroom; to the Vandy frat star wanting a fresh fade to impress everyone and no one in particular–all feel welcome here.
Just ask Keith Reed, the Ray Ban-bespectacled, snappily dressed barber to the far left.
“The barbers are just as diverse as the customers,” he said. “We attract like-minded customers.”
Reed, for instance, appeals to the more talkative types. His syrupy Louisiana drawl serves as a balm against boredom and can make a well-meaning jab taste just like a term of endearment.
But those customers who prefer few words to many see George Vavold, whose brilliantly bodacious auburn beard practically sets the room aglow and betrays the quiet demeanor of its owner.
“It’s about the people,” Vavold said. “That’s what we like about it. You get quality work and relationships.”
Those bonds run deeper than the typical fare. Regulars walk in the door and are received like family.
Forget trite “hello’s.” Depending on the barber, veteran patrons–including Belmont University president Bob Fisher–could get anything from a joking, “You again?!” to a sincere “How the hell are you?”
Conversation flows true and constant as friends share about the lives from which Oxford serves as a temporary escape. And, like psychologists as concerned about what’s inside the head as what’s out, the barbers nod and listen–commenting when necessary, joking when the mood strikes, all the while clipping away.
“Camaraderie and personal relationships” are typical of a traditional barber shop like Oxford, said Gould.
“You come to work, and your friends come in, and you talk to them, and you get money,” he said. “It’s like your extended family coming in.”
Ultimately, the strong relationships are what elevates Oxford Barber Shop to a cut above the rest. That, and the nostalgic appeal.
While trimming a customer’s buzz cut, Reed favorably compared the shop to an episode of “The Andy Griffith Show”–minus the lumbering town drunk, of course.
But don’t take his word for it. Jeremy Burns, a doctor at Vanderbilt, shared the same sentiments right before he went under the scissor.
“It’s an old remnant of the past–Nashville’s changing,” he said. “The store takes you back to a simpler time.”
As the customers come and go, day in and day out, they hurtle further and further from that time. The clock on the gray wall still ticks away.
Yet, that clock isn’t alone there. Two pictures flank it on both sides–on the left, a watercolor of the barber shop.
And on the right, a warmly nostalgic black-and-white photo of Oxford immortalizes the “good ol’ days” the shop still represents.
“It’s straightforward, no baloney,” said Reed. “Exactly like a barber shop 40 years ago.”