During my stay in Alexandria – in Virgina, just down the river from DC – I got the chance to hang out in a proper old school American barbershop.
I’d like to say that it was because barbershops are the heart of every community and the best place to get the latest gossip, discuss local politics and understand how a place really ticks.
Truth is, it was because of the barbershop scene in Eddie Murphy’s movie, ‘Coming to America.’
Booker T. Wilkins has been cutting hair at All American Barbershop for over 50 years. He opened way back in 1968 and has been a permanent and much-loved fixture of the community ever since.
When I wandered in and said I was from Australia and wanted to hangout in his barbershop for a while, he just shrugged his shoulders and said fine.
One of the customers waiting for a haircut introduced himself as Vernon and asked me about spiders. He tells me he is 54 and got his first haircut here when he was 17.
Back then, this was the rough part of Alexandria. As kids they were forbidden to venture here alone. But, like the rest of Alexandria, it had been gentrified. He pointed out a house across the road. It had just sold for $800,000.
The hike in value meant a hike in property taxes and a lot of the old-timers were being forced to sell. When you’re on a pension, $800 is a lot of money to find each month.
The conversation turned to gun control, rising food prices, Black Lives Matter and the war in Ukraine.
Booker remains silent as he cuts and shaves. Inscrutable. A diplomat. It’s only after his customers have left and it’s just me and him that he starts to talk.
He’s retiring soon, he tells me. COVID was a blow to his business and well, he’s just getting too old for this shit.
None of his kids have trained as barbers. They have all gone on to become accountants and business executives which he says is what he’d always wanted for them.
So when Booker goes, the All American Barbershop on the corner of Queen and North Henry Street will go too.
And Alexandria will lose a little part of its soul.