Wednesday, August 6, 2014
Ernest Williams loved people, and he loved to cut their hair.
He made sure that love lived on through his family and the business he built from scratch in the early 1990s.
Williams Barber Shop, on Redbank Road not far from the entrance to the Naval Weapons Station, still serves a largely military customer base with its eight-chair shop.
The only difference, a huge one to be sure, is “Willie” isn’t there anymore to share his friendly smile and abundant stories.
“It’ll never be the same for me,” said his granddaughter, Lauren Crews, who manages the shop now. “But we want to make sure everything stays the same in here for our customers.”
Since Williams’ death in April, Crews, along with her mother and Williams’ daughter, Kim Epps, have made sure there is no disruption in the business so many Goose Creek residents have come to depend on the past two-plus decades.
Epps oversees the shop, which is owned by her mother and Willie’s wife of 52 years, Betty.
“Some people said he was crazy to open a shop here,” Epps said. “But he did it. He didn’t know the first thing about opening his own shop, but he and some close friends got the shop up and running, and it’s still going.”
In fact, business is thriving. On a recent mid-morning visit, all eight chairs were occupied, with a half-dozen or more customers ranging in age from retirees to elementary-school age kids waiting their turn.
The shop is a no-frills, old-fashioned one that most folks of a certain age would recognize as the kind of barber shop their father would have taken them to for their first haircut.
The left wall is lined with the eight chairs and work stations, typical of most barber shops.
What makes Williams’ shop unique is the vast array of military and law enforcement memorabilia lining the top of the walls around the shop. Hats from naval ships of all types are represented, with plaques to commemorate service in various capacities across all branches of service displayed alongside.
Williams’ other love was cars. His daughter said he collected at least seven or eight Corvettes over the years, and the shop still has a curio cabinet full of NASCAR and other racing memorabilia. His favorite drivers, Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jr., are prominent parts of that collection.
While the shop is outwardly the same, Willie’s loss is keenly felt by his family, his longtime employees and his loyal customers.
Crews remembered something her grandfather would say her from time to time. It was about the only time she can remember him being wrong.
“He always said, ‘When I’m pushing up daisies, no one will ask about me,’ ” she said with a smile. “But he was definitely wrong about that. Every day somebody asks about him. He touched a lot of lives.”
Crews, who manages the shop, has been a part of her grandfather’s business since she was a little girl. Williams taught her how to cut hair when she was old enough, and she’s been doing it ever since.
“I would always ask him a lot of questions (about the business),” she said. “He told me I was nosy, that I should have been an attorney.”
Williams, who was born in Loris, made his way to the Lowcountry via jobs at Fort Jackson outside Columbia, where he cut hair for the Army, before coming to Charleston in 1968 to do the same at the Air Force base. He worked there until 1978, when he went to the Navy base and worked there until it closed in 1993.
That’s when he opened the shop on Redbank Road, which started with four chairs and expanded to eight not longer after, Epps said.
Epps said she gradually took over more responsibility for running the shop when it became apparent last year that her father, who had lung cancer, couldn’t continue as a day-to-day owner/operator.
“He hadn’t been feeling all that well for a while,” she said. “He had to cut back last year, and I took over paying the bills and the payroll.”
Williams’ health took a bad turn when he was injured in a fall two days after Christmas. Post-surgical complications resulted in an extended hospital stay, which he never fully recovered from, Epps said. He died April 14 at the age of 75 in hospice care.
Keeping the business going is a way for Epps and Crews to keep Williams’ legacy alive.
“Everything in (this shop) he’s touched at some point,” Crews said. “It gives me a sense of peace being here. He would be proud.”