Jack Mitchell turned 71 on Thursday, so he celebrated.
He went to work cutting hair.
Mitchell has been barberin’ for so long, for so many people, that there is a rumor that he cut the hair of John the Baptist.
“Not true,” says ol’ Jack. “Maybe it was my daddy, though.”
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Mitchell’s late daddy, also named Jack Mitchell, was a Rock Hill barber forever. So was Clifford Mitchell, Jack’s younger brother by two years who, until retiring a few months ago, cut a million hairs from a million heads and never stopped talking the whole time – except to sneak outside and have a cigarette.
Mitchell’s Barber Shop on Mount Gallant Road in Rock Hill is one of those places that cannot be. It is tiny, the sign is older than dirt, and the barber inside laughs all day long.
There is no cussing allowed, no smoking inside, not a drop of liquor has ever crossed the threshold, but everything else is fair game. Politics, ugliness, big ears – nothing is sacred.
“I cut enough hair that I oughta stay home, but I love coming in here and never get tired of it,” Mitchell said. “It’s not work if you enjoy it and the people that come in the door.
“They are customers, sure, but they are friends. Treat ’em right, they come back.”
The hundreds of loyal customers – cops and soldiers and judges and truck drivers and an occasional lout – have never had an appointment, ever.
“I learned a lot just sittin’ here gettin’ my hair cut by Jack all these times,” said customer Robert Frabott. “You hear it all here in this chair.”
The walls are covered with pictures of old Rock Hill, black and white photos of drive-ins and duck-tailed haircuts and fast flathead Fords with lean and rangy guys smoking Chesterfields.
Jack Mitchell pats his ample midsection.
“I lost weight,” he announces to the customers.
Mitchell is nowhere near skinny even if he has dropped 35 pounds.
But on Thursday, Mitchell’s birthday, in walked Robert Rainey. Just like Mitchell, Rainey is 71. Exactly 55 years ago Thursday – the day Mitchell turned 16 and his daddy took him to get his barber permit – his first customer was Robert Rainey.
“The haircut was 75 cents, and I remember Jack’s daddy said if Jack messed up my hair, he’d fix it for free,” Rainey said. “I wasn’t but 16 myself and Jack cut my hair and I told him afterward, ‘Well, you got some learnin’ to do.’”
Ever since, once or twice a month, Rainey has come to Mitchell for a haircut. Mitchell has cut the hair and shaved the neck and – like any couple together 55 years – they needle each other without pause.
“I tell Jack I will switch barbers when Jack trains somebody else,” Rainey said. He sure doesn’t give 75-cent haircuts anymore.”
“Haircut is nine dollars,” Mitchell says, chuckling.
Mitchell is asked if he accepts tips.
“Only on special days,” Mitchell said. “Days like Thursday, Friday, the rest of the week – those kind of days.”
Rainey left a tip. Everybody leaves a tip. A dollar usually, out of a ten-spot or two fivers.
Jack Mitchell thanks all of them. He means it, too.
There was a cake Thursday night at home for Jack Mitchell, surrounded by kids and wife and grandkids. No wax factory had enough supply for 71 candles for this tough and tender guy who is a walking, talking, hair-cutting history of York County.
With an encyclopedic memory, he recalls the girls of the mill hill he grew up on, what they wore, how they smiled. He remembers his one night working in a mill – and he remembers running away afterward and never going back.
He stuck with cutting hair.
He remembers who sold illegal booze and who found religion and who drove fast cars. He remembers every single customer – if not by name which he probably does, then by face.
“Robert Rainey was my first haircut,” Mitchell said. “Can’t count them all since. But you only have one first. Robert was mine. He’s still a piece of work.”
Mitchell celebrated his birthday a little bit Friday, too.
He went to work.