The sign on Line Street reads “Lee’s Barber Shop,” and patrons will greet “Mr. Lee” as he stands behind the chair. But it’s actually Richard Green, 78, who learned the barber trade from his father, Lee Green.
In 1947, Green stepped into his father’s barber shop on Coming Street as the new barber and the new Mr. Lee. He never corrected the customers and has been known as Mr. Lee ever since. He’s still snipping hair. Every day. All day.
“Being a barber is nothing special. I just wanted to take up my daddy’s trade. And I’m no different than my daddy,” Green says. “He (taught) me what I know. Cutting hair and shaving: that’s barber business.”
That trade still breathes life into Lee’s Barber Shop. First established on Coming Street, then relocated to Spring Street, and now settled on Line Street, it has carved a presence into Charleston’s history.
City business licenses adorn the walls with dignity. Eight chairs age, collecting newspapers and dust. A barber chair, suffocated with duct tape, exudes hospitality and seats all. A coat tree stands guard in the corner and supports Green’s hats, overcoats, and barber bibs. A poster of Martin Luther King Jr. gazes down from the wall and a box fan puffs air out the door. The smell of talc powder and mint waft down Line Street, urging people to visit the shop and Green.
Customers stroll in the door, no appointment necessary. Yet these days, Mr. Lee sees fewer faces in his one-room shop.
“It’s been very slow since the recession. I only have a few customers at the end of the month,” Green explains.
But when seniors cash government checks, business swells. And some days a straggler trickles in looking for a clean shave and a sharp cut.
Customer Joe Chaplin met Green in 1943.
“He cuts old style,” Chaplin says. “He doesn’t do all these new styles that other barbers do, like those braids. Mr. Lee just cuts normal.”
That signature style is what draws people back. Longtime customer Samuel White still entrusts his locks to Green, driving 25 minutes for a trim from Red Top, just south of Charleston on Savannah Highway.
“If I wasn’t satisfied with his work, I wouldn’t have been with him for such a long time,” White says.
A client for nearly 60 years, he’s had his hair cut by both father and son and witnessed Green’s transition from apprentice to master.
“They are different individuals,” White says. “But his father taught him the trade, and I watched him grow up cutting and learning.”
Others who left the neighborhood also journey back. Anthony Link of Summerville returns to visit with local friends and relax in Green’s barber chair.
“I don’t need an appointment, so I come on lunch break to sit down and talk with Mr. Lee and watch TV,” he says. “I just like the atmosphere of the neighborhood barber shop.”
Link describes Green as a “good barber” and a “nice person who would give you the shirt off his back if you don’t have clothes, free haircuts if you don’t have any money, and a mint whenever you want one.”
Green stands behind Link, shuffling around the chair and snipping sheers. His pace is relaxed, but his movements have purpose. He chats with Link, mumbling over words. But those who know him understand. His brown eyes study the hair he trims. But it is his aged hands that lead the way. A starched collared shirt peeks out from under his barber bib and his black shoes have worn the linoleum down to the plywood floor around the chair.
At 5 feet 4 inches, Green struggles to see over his customers’ heads. He pumps the chair, and it sinks down with a sigh. Mid-snip, Green exchanges his sheers for an old barbicide jar. Inside rattles red and white starlight mints. He doles them out. To customers, to friends, to strangers, and to school-kids.
He’ll even feed dogs and birds, says daughter Susan Cornley. One of nine siblings, she has learned the family trade, carrying on her grandfather’s barbering style.
“He will be remembered as a kind-hearted person,” she says of her dad. “Considerate, understanding, and a very good barber. This shop has a warm kind of feeling. When you come in, it’s about telling about problems and talking to my dad.”
Although Cornley is the youngest Green to snip the sheers, she will not take her father’s place.
“When he retires, I retire,” Cornley says. “I’ve only ever cut hair with him here.”
And she doesn’t want to cut without him.
For now, Green continues to work every day. He cuts hair in his Line Street shop six days a week. On Sundays, he travels to local nursing homes and hospitals to cut residents’ hair.
“I’ve been doing this for so long, it’s hard to imagine quitting,” Green says. ” I’m not getting any younger, but maybe I’ll retire in five or 10 years, if I live that long.”
At the end of his workday, Green turns off the fan with a slow touch. He tucks his sheers into a wood box to rest. He switches off his TV and moseys to the back of the shop. Exchanging his barber bib for a suit jacket and a bowler hat, Green locks up. But “Mr. Lee” will be back behind the chair tomorrow.