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Plaza Barber Shop closes after 45 years

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

For more than 20 years, Bobby Fox, a retired Clayton County employee, has religiously visited the Plaza Barber Shop in Riverdale to get his hair cut. Even after moving to Jasper County several years ago, his visits have gone undeterred.

"I came up here from Monticello," Fox said on Thursday, draped in a barber's bib. "It's about 55 miles from here. When the [price of] gas was so high, it used to cost about $50 to come up here and get a haircut ... I wouldn't have [made the trip] if it wasn't worth it."

Thursday was the last time Fox would be able to get his hair cut at the shop. After 45 years of operation, the Plaza Barber Shop -- one of the longest-standing downtown Riverdale businesses -- will permanently close on Christmas Eve.

The barbershop, which was opened on Sept. 15, 1963 by brothers Grady and Gerald Matthews, is deeply connected to the history of Riverdale and Clayton County. One of the first businesses in the Riverdale Plaza, the shop has served as a gathering place for older Clayton residents, as well as a political launch pad for many local elected officials.

"I was 21 when we opened up," said Gerald Matthews. "Now I'm 66. I was young, and Grady wasn't much older than me. Ever since we opened the shop, he's always been an inspiration for me."

Gerald cut hair at the shop full time until 1975, eventually pursuing more political ambitions. In 1985, he used the barbershop to help launch his 16-year career as a Clayton County Commissioner, serving on the board from 1985-1988 and 1992-2004.

Grady Matthews, 71, the older of the two brothers, stayed with the shop, establishing a long list of dedicated clientele.

"I've been working on these old heads so long, I can do it blindfolded," said Grady as he worked on a customer. "We don't refer to them as customers. We have been serving them so long, they are just our friends."

In the sixties, the Riverdale chapter of the United States Junior Chamber (Jaycees' for short), used the barbershop as a base to organize many of the county's earliest youth sports programs. For the latter part of the 20th century, the barbershop served as a mandatory campaign stop for local elected officials seeking to win the baby boomer vote.

Doug Lozel, a retired assistant principal at Haynie Elementary in Morrow, compared the barbershop to "a comfortable pair of shoes" -- a place where the barbers know the needs of the customers without having to ask.

People who moved to Riverdale in the 1950s and 1960s -- when the city grew from a rural outpost into a burgeoning, metro Atlanta suburb -- have long enjoyed the shop's relaxed atmosphere.

Time changes all things, however. As the shop's clientele has aged, the county's demographics have shifted, and the nation's economy has struggled, Grady Matthews has found it difficult to keep the business going.

"Our customer base has all moved away or died away," he said. "We do some African-American haircuts, but we don't do enough to keep the doors open. With the high gas prices, a lot of people couldn't afford to pay the extra $20 to get a haircut."

On Dec. 24, from 9 a.m., to 1 p.m., the barbershop will host a party with food and refreshments to thank its customers before it closes its doors for the last time.

Andy Carpenter, who served as Riverdale's mayor in the 1980s, was one of the shop's first customers. He said he would miss patronizing the business.

"I got to know these people when they first started," said Carpenter. "They're just good people to do business with. I just got to know them, not just as barbers, but friends."

Sandra Lewis, who has cut hair at the Plaza Barber Shop since 1995, said most of the barbers at the shop will migrate to Crossroads Barber Styles, at 1841 Hwy. 138 SW, in Riverdale. However, the shop's closing has been emotional for everybody, she said.

"We've had people come in here crying about the fact that we're closing down," said Lewis. "You talk to them and get to know their wives, and their dogs, and where they live and work. You see their kids grow up.

"You might not know their name, but you know everything else about them," she said. "We just tell them that we're not that far away."

Grady Matthews said he would attempt to retire from the haircutting business, but didn't make any promises.

"A business can't operate forever," said Matthews. "We were hoping we could. I'm going to try to retire. Four years ago I tried it, but it worked out for about two weeks."

Gerald Matthews said he is happy to have built a successful business from the ground up with his older brother.

"It's really been a great thing," he said. "A lot of leaders have come through this shop. We were able to accomplish many things in the Riverdale area."