By Joel Hall
Grady Matthews' barber chair at the Plaza Barber Shop in Riverdale is a familiar place for Matthew Hall, 27, of Jonesboro. As Matthews fitted Hall with a barber's cape, Hall recalled getting his very first haircut at the shop.
"Me and my brother both got our first haircuts here," said Hall. "Other than when I went to college, this is the only place I've gotten my hair cut.
"It's great that you can come in here, know the people, and get the same great haircut you have gotten for years."
Matthews, 71, has been a co-owner of the Plaza Barber Shop for 45 years. He opened the shop on Sept. 15, 1963 with his younger brother, Gerald, when the two were still in their early twenties.
According to Matthews, not much has changed in the four and a half decades he has cut hair at the shop.
"To my knowledge, we're the oldest, originally owned business in Riverdale," said Matthews. "We've pretty much kept things the same over the last 45 years."
The Plaza Barber Shop has a long history. In the sixties, it catered to young baby boomers as the city experienced unbridled growth. As the population of Riverdale has grown, and its demographics have shifted, the barbershop has attracted new clients, while catering to the descendants of original customers.
"We've had four generations come in here," said Gerald Matthews. "Some of our older customers have passed away, but the way that we stay in business is that their children and grandchildren continue to frequent the shop."
The barbershop is also connected to the history of Riverdale itself. In 1964, the barbershop hosted the first meeting of the Riverdale chapter of the United States Junior Chamber. Commonly referred to as 'Jaycees,' members of the Riverdale chapter of the Junior Chamber were vital in establishing many of the county's earliest sports programs, as well as the first youth-league football team in Riverdale.
Gerald Matthews, who was instrumental in organizing the Jaycees, left the barbershop to enter county politics. Between 1988 and 2004, the younger Matthews served for 16 years on the Clayton County Board of Commissioners. Eventually, the Gerald Matthews Sports Complex in Lovejoy was named after him because of his commitment to local sports.
"If it wasn't for this shop, I couldn't have been as successful as I was in my political career," said Gerlad Matthews. "This was really my base. All the people I met, and cutting their hair, was a big part of me being elected."
The elder Matthews, preferring people to politics, decided to stay at the shop. Changing markets have challenged the business over the years, but the shop has continued to offer gentlemen's haircuts and flattops at reasonable prices, he said.
"We lost a whole generation of customers to the long hair movement in the seventies," said Matthews. "We decided not to conform. It cost us for a little while, but eventually, they came back. We survived."
Anita Hammond, who has been working for the barbershop for six months, said working in the shop is an "awesome" experience, and that she couldn't "ask for better teachers and clientele."
"This is the kind of barbershop that is not going to be around forever, and it's good to a part of it while it is," said Hammond.
Matthews said he never stayed in the business for the money, but for the people he's come to know. "I've got a good crew here," he said. "They know that they aren't going to get rich in here, but we enjoy working together.
"I have thought about retiring, but I can't walk away from it," said Matthews. "It's not the work, it's the people. When you serve people as long as I have, customers become like family."