A cut and singe above the rest

2008-03-27 00:00

There are only a handful of traditional men’s barbers left in Pietermaritzburg these days and one of them, Club Hairdressers in Greyling Street, celebrates its centenary this year. “I think that my business is the oldest men’s barber in the country,” says owner Gavin Growdon, who is something of a record breaker himself. “I’ve been cutting hair for 54 years.”

Club Hairdressers began life in Gallwey Lane in the foyer of the privately owned Natal Club, hence its name. “There were snooker and billard tables. It was a men’s club owned by Mr Earle,” says Growdon. “Club Hairdressers was started by Mr Andley.”

In 1933 Andley was bought out by Abe Liebenberg. “Abe was a sergeant in the Carbineers and he sold it to Louis ‘Koekie’ Koekemoer when he went off to the war. When Liebenberg returned he bought it back from Koekie who didn’t want to run the business.”

When Earle died in 1956 the Natal Club died with him. Nedbank bought the building, demolished it and then opened a branch (Clicks now occupies the site). Club Hairdressers then moved to the corner of Bank and Pietermaritz streets. “Abe’s wife Daphne opened a women’s hair salon in conjunction with Club Hairdressers and it was a great success,” says Growdon.

“When Daphne died in 1959 Abe didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to fire the girls and he liked the business so he told Koekie he could have Club Hairdressers but that he would have to move to other premises.”

And so Club Hairdressers moved to Perks Arcade in April 1960. “Koekie still wasn’t keen on running a business and he sold it to Jan Gademan in 1963 who had it for two years before he died of a heart attack,” says Growdon. “His wife then tried to run it but in 1970 she asked me to buy her out.”

At the time Growdon was running Royal Hairdressers, a business started by Sammy Katz which was where Growdon had learnt his trade. “I remember the day: December 18, 1954 — that’s when I started with Katz.”

Growdon wanted be a barber from his first year at high school. “My father said: ‘You’re off your head. Stay at school and learn.’ But when my father died in November 1954 I finished Standard 8 and became a barber.”

This meant a four-year apprenticeship during which Growdon learnt to cut hair, shave, singe, set the razors, brew hair tonics and give head and face massages. “I’ve still got my certificates and papers,” he says. “But I don’t do shaving or massages anymore — although I will still singe on request. Singeing helps seal hair ends and some customers swear that it keeps baldness at bay.”

When Katz was killed in a motor accident in 1962 Growdon took over Royal Hairdressers. “I was opposite the city hall in the African Life building on the corner of Church Street and Commercial (Chief Albert Luthuli) Road, next to the Grand Theatre. When Mrs Gademan asked me to take over Club Hairdressers I bought her out and ran the two businesses.”

When the African Life building was demolished Growdon moved to the adjacent Capital Towers. In 1984, unhappy at the lease offered by the building’s new owners, Growdon combined the two businesses under the Club Hairdressers banner in Perks Arcade. There he remained until 2002 when he moved his traditional red-and-white barber’s pole to his current premises in Greyling Street where he celebrated 50 years of barbering in 2004.

Marking this milestone is a specially produced “long service award” from satisfied customer Canon David Jenkins. The certificate declares Growdon to be “the only man in Pietermaritzburg who knows more of what’s going on than The Witness”. That’s thanks to cutting the hair of just about every male head in Pietermaritzburg, including administrators, lawyers, doctors, farmers and journalists. Growdon’s regular customers have included mercenary “Mad” Mike Hoare and, more recently, South African swimmer and Olympic gold medallist Darian Townsend. The large mirrors on the premises are fringed with business cards from customers and the walls boast many horse racing photographs presented to Growdon by proud owners. There are also several cuttings from The Witness as well as a Sunday Tribune obituary for Koekie who died in 1983.

These “treasures” can be seen as you sit in one of the two traditional barber chairs. “They’ve been in the business since 1922 when they were bought second-hand,” says Growdon. “They must be at least 150 years old.”

So who cuts Growdon’s hair when he takes a seat?

“A friend whom I trained. I cut his hair and he cuts mine.” Growdon cuts hair almost every day of the year, even for a couple of hours on Sundays and public holidays — “except for the religious ones ... but you can always find me here”.

Growdon’s thoughts on the centenary of his business and his own half-century plus of barbering? “I never got rich but I’ve enjoyed myself.”

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