Like most young men, Ray Bradford had his life figured out when he was 17.
He would play professional baseball during the season, then cut hair when it ended. But it wasn’t meant to be. An accident with a wood-working tool caused him to lose part of his fingers, and the baseball dream suddenly ended.
“Like I told my mother, ‘I could just sit down and cry,’ but that wouldn’t do any good,” the 84-year-old Willards native said.
Well-groomed men from Berlin to Salisbury have benefitted, because Bradford has clipped hair for the past 67 years, and is still on the job Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at Shores & Bradford Barber Shop on north Priscilla Street.
Merrill Shores was his partner “50-plus years ago,” Bradford explained. He has since died, and now Janie Jones owns the shop. It changed hands in June 2012.
Jones had a recent case of laryngitis, and Bradford couldn’t resist a quip. “It was awfully quiet around here,” he said, smiling.
“Oh, he did enough talking for both of us,” Jones retorted, laughing.
A master barber for 30 years who learned her craft in Wheaton, Md., Jones wouldn’t want to do anything else. “I love it, just love it. I wouldn’t take a penny for it. You get to meet new people and every head is different,” she said.
Plus, the conversation is absorbing.
“We take confessions but we don’t let them out of here,” Jones said.
“Kids open up to me more than they will to their parents. I tell them to try and talk to their parents. I used to put little kids on booster seats and now I am cutting their children’s hair,” she said.
On a typical day, she has about a dozen customers from 7 a.m. to noon. Often, they are waiting for her at 6:45 a.m., to get a trim before work. One recent day, when she was working alone, she managed 27 haircuts.
Even on busy days, there is laughter and joking as clippings tumble to the floor, Bradford said.
“We pulled a joke on the guy. He wouldn’t sit still so one of the barbers pulled a comb across his ear and said, ‘First one I ever did cut off.’ He had a fake ear he got from somewhere and he dropped it in the trash can. He was tickled but the guy was mad. He slapped his hand up there and realized he still had his ear,” Bradford said, chuckling.
“A lot of the stuff we hear, it’s man stuff. Most of them can get a little dirty but we tell them, ‘Don’t tell dirty jokes.’ They talk about all kinds of stuff,” he said.
Customers ask for advice, discuss problems and careers, even question him about his pacemaker.
“They ask me if I’d do it again. In a heartbeat. I’m on my second one. It is what keeps me going,” he said.
He has no plans to retire, but to continue giving currently popular military haircuts and a few flat tops five hours, three days, every week.
“I’ve been a barber all my life. I went to barber school when I was 17, then I had that three years of professional baseball. When I cut part of my fingers off, it happened a few days before spring training, the fourth year,” he said.
He was a pitcher for what he called, “an offshoot of the Atlanta Braves, like we have here in Salisbury.”
“I played for the 1948 Eastern Shore League,” he said. He was awarded a bonus, and applied it to the barber school tuition.
“I hoped when baseball went big I wouldn’t have to cut hair anymore,” he said.
But he doesn’t regret a lifetime as a barber. His wife, Jean, worked in a school cafeteria more than 20 years and they raised two sons. He still cuts one son’s hair, as well as his grandson’s. “We did all right,” he said.
“I’ve been here all these years and I still haven’t figured it out, when business will be heavy and when we’ll get just a few. I’m not up to a hard day’s work now. I’m too old for a new heart valve, so they aren’t going to put that in. So I just rest and take it easy. If I get tired, I sit down,” Bradford said in a friendly Eastern Shore drawl.
He and Jones read when it’s slow and look through magazines.
“Janie and I discuss different things. Some days we have a lot of customers, some days we don’t,” he said, adding Mondays and Tuesdays are usually busiest.
“Ray taught me a lot. I learned a whole lot from him about life and about the barber business. He’s mellow. He just takes one day at a time, and now I learned to do that, too,” Jones said.
Bradford started cutting hair in Salisbury in 1956. He worked in Berlin for a while and had a shop on Church Street. He’s been at the Priscilla Street location 50 years.
“Janie, now, she has some women, but all my customers are men. We charge $13, so we aren’t high. You can make a little money if you work hard.
“We have some customers who come back every two or three weeks. It used to be you could set your clock by them every two weeks. We used to have several of them like that when I was on Church Street, but it’s changed,” he said.
Bradford didn’t try to guess how many haircuts he’s given in 67 years, but said there has been “a boxcar load, at least.”
On a recent Saturday he welcomed 12 customers, and by lunchtime was ready to go home and take his wife, who’s 76, out to lunch.
“I enjoy it. My wife and I will be married 60 years and she’s put up with a lot. She’s a pretty good gal,” he said.
“We’ve had a lot of fun.”
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