Matthew Stokes: Mr. Oliver

Matthew Stokes: Mr. Oliver

By MATHEW STOKES, Alabama Daily News Columnist

The kids and I had to run some errands last Friday so I drove by his place.  

I knew he wouldn’t be there. I knew there would be sign on the door saying CLOSED.  I knew there were flowers, and maybe a ribbon or a wreath. I drove past the shop twice and I grimaced each time.  There would be no more trips to the ATM for a cash-only haircut. No more flipping through old Woodlawn yearbooks or looking up at posters for rock and roll shows from forty years ago.  No more old toys to make me smile and reminisce. 

My wife told me the news. Vincent Oliver had passed away.

I had taken the dogs for yet another walk and I came back inside to find her at the top of the stairs.  My mother had sent us a link and my wife saw it first. We were both so sad. I first visited Vincent Oliver in Woodlawn, on Birmingham’s east side, probably two years ago.  I had started working downtown and I wanted to find somewhere to get a real barbershop haircut. I had a guy close to my house but work kept me from seeing him during the week, and, frankly, I didn’t want to fool with it on Saturdays.  

A few internet searches led me – and a lot of other people – down First Avenue North to Vincent Oliver’s Hippodrome Barbershop. It was a step back in time. The furnishings had changed very little over the decades. The room was decorated with toys, both new and old, and the walls were covered with posters from bygone rock shows.  Most importantly, the haircuts were great and the barber was a kind gentleman who worked quickly and carefully.

The shop was usually filled with two types of men.  Middle aged and older men who had been coming for years, and younger fellows like me who basically found the place by searching the internet for an old-fashioned barber.  Mr. Oliver always took the time to ask my name and after a few visits he mostly remembered it. If he had not remembered it, I could hardly blame him, given that he had dealt with thousands of customers over the years.  

Eventually we brought our two boys in for a haircut a couple of times, and they loved it. Mr. Oliver even let my youngest take a toy home when he visited for a cut the day before his second birthday. Kids remember that sort of kindness, and our kids were sad when we told them that our dear old barber had passed away.

My favorite thing about visiting Mr. Oliver was that conversation inevitably turned to life in Birmingham.  He was from the east side of town, a graduate of Woodlawn High, and while my family ties are on the western side of the county – Hueytown, Pleasant Grove, Fairfield, the Highway 78  corridor – we would eventually find ourselves talking about what Birmingham had been and what it was becoming. He would mention restaurants and hot spots that he knew well as a young man that I had only seen in old photos, or that my parents had mentioned in passing over the years.  We both remembered a few older restaurants that were now gone, and unknown even to a supposedly knowledgeable generation of young Birmingham residents who fancy themselves as deeply familiar with the Magic City’s history.

Speaking selfishly, that’s what I find so sad. The passing not just of a person but of a storehouse of memory, no longer able to pass knowledge and wisdom to customers and neighbors.  His passing is another loss for Birmingham, as a reviving city loses part of its grand history.

Several months ago I found myself out of work.  It was somewhat expected but still a kick in the gut.  The next morning I got up and tried to do as usual. I took the kids to school and after a good friend treated me to a sympathy breakfast, I headed to Woodlawn.  I needed a haircut, and in an attempt to maintain self-respect, I made sure that an unruly appearance was kept at bay.

It was a cold winter morning, but the heater was on in Woodlawn.  I did not tell Mr. Oliver about my new situation and in fact, I asked him about a project I had been monitoring at the now old job. He gave me a lot of background details that I passed along to my former colleagues.  I regret that I did not get to come by for one last haircut. I certainly hate that I never got to inquire about his Italian heritage – Neapolitan and Sicilian, according to local media reports, and my own family has a proud Sicilian heritage.

He was a fine Christian gentleman who showed so much common grace to me, my family, and untold numbers of Birmingham residents for so many decades.  I mourn his passing, and remain thankful for his kindness and generosity.

Matthew Stokes is a writer living in Birmingham. Follow him on Twitter @yellingstopAL or email him at yellingstopal@gmail.com.