The man behind the barber’s chair

When Jimmy’s Barber Shop closed four years ago, the community lost a local hub. Jimmy Mack’s clients didn’t just go there to get their hair shaped in the once-popular Caesar cut; they went there to grow up. As boys, they went for the candy and juice boxes Mack handed out – a kindness that distinguished him from other barbers in the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood. As young men, they went to discuss women, and once they’d grown older, the state of the world.

“It was nice,” Mack said, his voice warm and gravelly from 50 years of barbershop talk. “We had a lot of fun. You know, we talked about politics – a lot of politics – sports, news events and women. You know how that goes with a bunch of men together.”

Mack, sitting in the bluish light of his shaded porch on Carnahan Place, let out a robust laugh that seemed to come straight from his belly.

Mack was introduced to his profession while at sea with the 5th Division of the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. Many men, Mack recalled, were there to learn how to kill. But he wanted to learn something else. After two years of being on the ship in the gunnery department, he noticed a flyer on the bulletin board to become a barber. Mack passed the test and soon became a master of crew cuts.

After returning to civilian life at 21, Mack traveled from his hometown of Roanoke, Va., to Princeton. He came to visit his uncle, who owned Mack’s Sanitary Barber Shop, and brother, who worked there, with the intention of a two-week visit before taking the road west to San Diego.

“What happened was, my uncle needed a barber and asked if I’d work there until he got another one. Two weeks went by, then three. And now, well, I’m still here,” Mack said. “I worked there for about four or five years, I built up my clientele and went out on my own. It was about 1962 when I opened Jimmy’s Barbershop on 141 John St.”

Mack remembers what it was like in Princeton when he first arrived in the late 1950s.

“It was different than being down south. We could ride the bus, I’ll put it that way. Down south, buses were still segregated. We had to sit in the rear. The only problem was we couldn’t eat at certain restaurants,” Mack said. “As time was going, it got better. I had a lot of the whites from the university – say around about two or three years after I opened. My prices were in their favor. I was much cheaper than going uptown.”

Despite the social climate of Mack’s early days in town, Mack loved Princeton and still does today. He loves its small town feel. He loves that it’s safe, and he loves the people. And should ever his name be uttered in the neighborhood, it’s apparent the people love him, too.

“Jimmy Mack is like a brother, father, uncle and political advisor to me,” said lifelong Princeton resident Lance Liverman, who now serves as president to the town council. “I have known Jimmy for over 47 years.  Jimmy is a good man. I just left him four hours ago – his backyard backs up a little to my property. He is a loving, gentle, caring, attentive, present, smart, funny, excited, nurturing and informed person. I love Jimmy Mack and I know he loves me. We are beginning to lose that type of connection between business and community.”

“I’m now 61 years old and Jimmy used to cut my hair when I was a little boy – that gives you an idea of how long ago it was,” said local David Jackson, who walked into Mack’s yard unannounced the way one could tell he’d done more than 100 times before. “My mom used to send me up to Mr. Lee’s barber shop on Witherspoon. I hated going there … The other boys and me, we gonna sneak around and go to Jimmy.”

Jackson laughed.

“Those were the good old days. I remember it like it was yesterday,” he said while looking off in the distance.

Being Princeton’s favorite barber was a hard thing for Mack to give up, but by 2012, he knew it was the right time to retire. Mack had made enough memories in the barber shop to last him several lifetimes. He and his wife, Audrey, raised their three children, George, Joyce and James Michael Mack, there on John Street, in the W-J and in Princeton Public Schools. The Macks now have a grandson and a great-grandson and continue to be involved in their community and local church. Mack has spent the last four years relaxing, working around the house, enjoying his Cavaliers Club and traveling. Perhaps one day soon, he’ll finally get to San Diego.

“Jimmy was the unofficial mayor of Princeton for years. His barbershop was a place for information. Everyone got along and there were all types of characters,” Liverman said. “When parents of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood could not find a babysitter after school, they would say to the child, ‘Wait in Jimmy Mack’s Barber Shop.’ It was safe. Jimmy’s Barber Shop is truly missed.”

 

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About Erica Chayes Wida

Erica Chayes Wida is a writer, mom, and complete zealot when it comes to poetry, paella and globe collections. After graduating with a degree in Anthropology from UCLA, Erica moved to Italy where the seasons and old architecture inspired her journey back to the East Coast. Since then, she and her husband have created a nest egg locally and, over time, developed a rather grand love affair with the town of Princeton. Erica is senior editor at The Princeton Sun and enjoys fulfilling her Princeton affections on a daily basis. | View all posts by Erica Chayes Wida