Community flourishes at 62-year-old Klondike barber shop

The Klondyke Handy Spot-Barber and Beauty Salon thrives in a community  whose landscape has changed dramatically with blight and neglect. But owner Eric Steward is unfazed and understands what the business in the neighborhood represents.
When it comes to longevity, Klondike business owner Eric Steward knows the formula.
 
For his business it’s quality service, reasonable fees and a dose of “street” ministry on the side. Thus, the makings of the Klondyke Handy Spot-Barber and Beauty Salon, a bright spot in the community whose legacy has outshined and outlasted many of the area’s local businesses.
 
The barber shop is a small red brick structure that sits in the middle of the community. The lawn is manicured and the red and white business sign is prominently displayed high above the building near the street and perpendicular to Vollintine.
 
“We offer ministry. We always lift up the name of Jesus. We have people who have been ‘baptized’ or received Christ by listening to me and other people who come through,” said Steward, the owner.
 
No, the Handy Spot is not a church, but a neighborhood barber shop that has been in the community for over 60 years and spanning three generations.
 
Steward, a 10-year ordained minister, is standing on the shoulders of his great-uncle Clarence D. Tucker, the original owner, who started the business in May 1955 on Jackson Avenue, one of the main streets bordering the Klondike neighborhood. Tucker moved the shop in 1962 to Vollintine Avenue.

Michael Harris gets a shave from Eric Steward, owner of the Handy Spot on Vollintine Avenue in Klondike. "You can pretty much fall asleep in the chair if you trust your barber," Steward said.
 
A master barber, Steward, 46, has been at the 1342 Vollintine location for 24 years.  He took over the business after his uncle retired in 2001 at the age of 80. Steward remembers the early years of his uncle picking him up in Ashland, Mississippi, where he grew up and bringing him into the city. Still a resident of Mississippi, Steward lives with his wife, Marketta, an assistant principal, and their 12-year-old son in Olive Branch.
 
“When I was eight, nine and ten years old, my uncle would pick me up. I would sweep up around the barber shop on Saturdays. He inspired me to go to barber school,” Steward said. “I wanted to be an entrepreneur like him and work for myself.”
 
After graduating from high school, Steward went to Jett Barber School while working part-time at FedEx. Shortly after graduating he started working for his uncle. 
 
Steward admits that customers were a little dubious about allowing a rookie to cut their hair. But his uncle encouraged them to give him a chance and many of the teen customers wanted a younger barber who knew the current styles.

Derek Stubbs gets his hair cut by Eric Steward, the owner of the Handy Spot on Vollintine Avenue in Klondike.
 
“He encouraged them to give me a shot. I brought something new.”
 
Steward has a loyal following and believes that it’s due in part to the reasonable prices. More so, his uncle’s legacy resonates with the customers who have moved out of the neighborhood but return for camaraderie and a good haircut.
 
Steward is keenly aware that many of his customers cannot afford the price of an average haircut. He recently raised his prices for the first time in five years. The current rate comes in at $14.
 
“My uncle would always say, ‘If you can survive on what you make, you should be satisfied,’” Steward said. “To me, ministry is more important than money. People will come if you have something good like a positive word.” 
 
Customer Sammie Johnson, a mechanical contractor, moved to the area as a teenager and was a customer long before Steward arrived on the scene. Johnson’s father and Tucker, the Handy Spot’s original owner, were good friends.
 
“I started getting my haircut by Mr. Tucker in 1966,” Johnson said.
 
Even though Johnson since has moved to the nearby Vollintine- Evergreen area, he continues to be a regular customer. Johnson said Steward is like family and his sons also get haircuts at the shop.
 
“He’s more than just my barber. He’s a good person to be in the neighborhood,” Johnson said, adding that like his uncle, Steward does not tolerate bad language or bad conduct in his shop. “He’s a bright light in some of the darkness around there.”


 
The light is always on whether open or closed. The barber shop thrives in a community whose landscape has changed dramatically with blight and neglect. But Steward is unfazed and understands what the business in the neighborhood represents.
 
“Kids need to see something positive in the neighborhood,” he said. “There’s more to life than selling drugs and women walking the street. Kids come and hang out and I tell them, ‘Put God first in your lives and watch your surroundings. You don’t have to join a gang to be successful. It’s OK to be different.’”
 
Plaques awarded to Steward’s uncle remain in the shop. One from CrimeBusters, a division of the Memphis Police Department for donating money to promote justice thru community involvement in 2002. Still another trophy was from the Madam C. J. Walker Hair Show, an award for being the oldest African-American barber shop in 2001 in the City of Memphis.  Walker was one of the first black female millionaires and developed hair care products for African-American women during the early 1900s.

Michael Harris gets his hair cut by Eric Steward, the owner of the Handy Spot on Vollintine Avenue in Klondike.
 
Steward boasts a wide mix of clientele ranging from drug dealers and gang members to business owners and doctors.
 
Internal medicine doctor Mario Ray, an assistant professor at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and director of hospitalists for Reginal One, is a longtime customer, along with his 15-year-old son. Ray grew up in Orange Mound and currently lives in Collierville, but that doesn’t keep him from the North Memphis institution.
 
“My brother was going there when I was a student at UT Martin and said he knew a good barber in North Memphis,” Ray said, adding that he’s been a loyal customer since that day in 1995. “When you find a good barber, you don’t switch.
 
“When Mr. Tucker was there, it provided that classic black male barber shop perspective. We could talk about sports, politics and religion. You felt safe when you went in.”
 
“My son has grown up in a completely different environment than what I grew up in,” the elder Ray said, adding he wanted his son exposed to a community anchor like Steward. “Eric takes his time. And my son has learned the value of a good quality haircut.”
 
Ray is keenly aware of what the barber shops means to the greater neighborhood.
 
“You have the black community experience right there in that little biddy building,” he said.

Read more articles by Thelma Balfour.

Thelma Balfour has been a freelance writer for USA Today and Newsweek. She also worked as a reporter for The Commercial Appeal, the daily newspaper in Memphis. She is the author of two books, Black Sun Signs: An African American Guide to the Zodiac and Black Love Signs.
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