Written and photographed by Paul Wolf
I’m a sucker for a storyteller.
And Bob Smith’s got ‘em. Stories. In spades.
The east Mississippi native, “younger than Elvis,” he tells me, celebrates fifty years in Fondren on July 6.
If the common name doesn’t ring a bell, maybe his business home for the last fifty years will: Bob’s Cut & Curl (now Acey Custom Hair Design).
Smith came to Jackson after attending barber college in Lincoln, Nebraska, a path he came about indirectly.
His father had cut hair for a year or so in Forrest, Mississippi, but discouraged his son from doing the same. “Not enough money in it,” he would tell him.
So, after high school, the younger Smith worked for Winn-Dixie for ten years then moved to Nebraska where he worked for the state prison. For another three years, Smith worked for a shotgun shell manufacturer.
Just as he was signing up for barber college, a plan for both he and his brother, Smith’s brother was drafted.
“He talked me into holding off a year (for barber school),” Smith said. “I did and got a job back in the grocery store.”
It was while delivering groceries around town Smith noticed a benefit to his future career. “Sometimes I’d see them sitting down (in the barbershop next door). When you’re in a grocery business, you never sit!”
Smith moved to Jackson in 1969. In his first week here, barber’s license in hand, Smith had taken a job at a shop in Colonial Mart. The head of the local barber board told him the middle chair had opened with Woodrow Herrin in Fondren, a shop that had been in business already for at least 25 years. Smith quickly made the move.
In the first six months of his employment, the shop came up for sale.
Smith says he was “broker than a broke cat” but the shop’s landlord, Mr. Downing, financed the purchase, treating Smith “royally” (thank a Winn-Dixie stock share for a bit of seed money).
Later he purchased the salon in the back, Gerri’s, on the goodwill of his local banker.
“My sign was ‘Cut and Curl,’” he explains, to cover men’s and women’s styles. Smith was at one time a California Concept franchise (“one of the better things I ever did”), the second in the state.
Smith sold the business to Elisa Acey in 2011 because of health concerns.
“I had two cancers,” he says matter-of-factly, “and I didn’t know which one would kill me first.”
Even after beating prostate cancer, Smith works here every day. “Didn’t want to sit at home on my butt,” he tells. Acey says he has never slowed down before adding, “He has started taking Wednesdays off.”)
A point of pride for Smith, he pulls out notes about his training and certifications (Pivot Point International and the University of Southern Mississippi College of International Continuing Education among them).
Smith is licensed as a barber (he shows me his “lifetime” license that expires in September), a cosmetologist and an aesthetician.
“I came here as the most qualified person,” he says, speaking of his decision to get his education in Nebraska. “Had I not had that experience, I would have failed here. At college in Lincoln Nebraska, you needed 300 more hours than (are required) here. Now it’s 500 more hours.”
Smith is a past treasurer of the State Cosmetology board and past president of the Mississippi Barbers’ Association.
All that talk of training reminds Smith of his father’s wisdom.
“I told my dad I wanted to go to barber college and learn to do hair and get me a farm out here, to have a few cows and such,” Smith relates. “You know what he said? ‘Forget about the farm. Take your time for advanced training.’”
He turns to the ladies working for Acey that day: “Did y’all hear what I said?
“Yes, Bob,” they reply as if maybe this isn’t new advice.
“Spend all your time there and you’ll make more money. That’s what I tried to do. It was fantastic advice but I didn’t think it was at the time!”
Smith has seen the neighborhood ebb and flow as the years have passed.
“Darling,” he calls it now. “Everyone is quite friendly.”
He notes efforts to revitalize West Fondren and says, “Things like that will keep happening in this neighborhood. It’s coming up.”
Did you ever want to move?
“Yes, when things were going down and everyone was going north. The lady that worked for me suggested we go to Madison. She left and I didn’t.”
Fifty years later, Smith recognizes things are on the upswing again. Does he like it?
“You’d be nuts not to.”