133. S.C. barber has a short, squirrelly tale to tell
by Kris Wise
Charlie Cox's barbershop in South Charleston is mostly a guys' hangout.
So it's a big deal when a lady shows up to spend some time.
Even if the lady is a squirrel.
Cox's customers know that when "his girl" arrives, the clippers go down.
"It doesn't matter if I've got 15 guys sitting in these chairs waiting for a haircut," Cox says. "I've got to take care of my girl."
"We have a ball in this place," he says.
"Stubs" the squirrel shows up almost every day at Cox's shop on D Street, not too far from South Charleston City Hall and the Mound. She skitters across the concrete sidewalk in front of Cox's glass front door, perches on her hind legs and stares inside.
They have a little ritual.
Barber Charlie Cox gets a visit from his buddy, Stubs the squirrel, almost every day at his South Charleston shop near the Mound. Cox has been feeding Stubs by hand for the past three years.
Cox, in the midst of giving a loyal customer a trim, stops everything he's doing. He walks over to a pile of peanuts he keeps in one of his barber drawers.
He opens the front door, and Stubs steps inside the shop and puts her little paw in Cox's outstretched hand. She takes the peanut, pauses rather thoughtfully and skitters away.
This has been going on for three years.
Stubs, named for her stubby tail, showed up outside Cox's shop one day. He started throwing peanuts to her from across the sidewalk.
"It took me a while to coax her in," Cox says. "But after three years, we're pretty close now."
In the summertime, Stubs -- who can also be identified by the little hole pierced in one ear, likely the result of a face-off with another critter -- actually comes all the way inside the shop and hangs out for a while on Cox's doormat.
His regular customers have all seen the show time and time again.
"I've always said he's a little squirrelly," quips Ed Mitchell, whose haircut one recent Friday morning took a few minutes longer than usual because Stubs' visit stretched on and on.
Her daily treats usually consist of only one nut. If Cox gives her more, she sometimes runs across the street to hide them, and he's afraid she'll get hit by a car.
But she spent much of that morning staked outside the door and was rewarded with at least half a dozen nuts.
Stubs and Cox even showed off their little tree trick. The squirrel clamors up the side of a tree planted right outside, hangs down from a branch and plucks a peanut from his fingers.
He talks to her like she's a little kid. He even coos a little bit.
Cox is almost 74. He grew up around Richwood, went into the Army and then landed in Buffalo, N.Y., working for General Motors. When he got laid off from his job, he went to barber school. Then he couldn't find a job in New York.
He headed back to West Virginia almost 50 years ago to do his apprenticeship.
"I thought I would just do my apprenticeship and then get out of here," Cox says of South Charleston. "Technically, my license still says I'm here to practice.
"This is where the money was," he says.
At one time, about 25 years ago, Cox, who is divorced with two grown daughters, owned three barbershops in the city: a couple on D Street and one in a little alley near Oaks Avenue.
"Back then, if you wanted to get a haircut in South Charleston, you had to go through me," Cox said.
Cox said he used to cut the hair of a lot of local "celebrities," from mayors and city council members to former Gov. Bob Wise.
But business has changed.
He now has just the one shop, a nondescript little place. The only barber pole is the one painted on the glass door. Cox works alone these days, and three of his five barber chairs are stacked with old newspapers, magazines and memorabilia.
Some of Cox's loyal customers have left the area because so many of the city's plants have closed over the past couple of decades.
And many of his clients have died.
He has a drawer in the shop that holds hundreds of yellowed newspaper clippings, each with the photo and obituary of a customer who has passed away.
"I've had some of these customers so long that every time they walk out the door, I think that might be the last time I see them."
He pauses with his scissors and looks at Mitchell, still in the chair waiting for his head of white hair to be shaped up.
"Like you, Ed. You're probably next."
Sometimes it's unclear if Cox is cutting hair or doing a stand-up comedy routine.
"My customers expect to be entertained when they come here," he says. "So I try to entertain them."
And Cox rarely disappoints.
He is an entertainer of sorts. In his spare time, he's a dancer.
This past weekend he donned his best duds for the quarterly dance of his ballroom dancing team.
He started dancing late in life -- he does salsa, too -- as a way to scratch an itch he'd had since high school.
"I wanted to dance back then, but I was too bashful," he says. "And that just wasn't something us football players did."
Now, he'll dance around the barbershop if you ask him to.
He's also a pilot.
He bought a little single-engine plane about five years ago, not long after he got his license.
He keeps a two-way radio in one of his barber booths that he uses to talk to other local pilots who are flying overhead and making their descents at either Yeager Airport or Mallory Airport, where he keeps his plane.
Oh, and he's a biker.
He has a couple of Harley Davidson motorcycles that he rides around the neighborhood -- he lives on Second Avenue not far from his shop -- when the fancy strikes.
He slowed down a little bit lately, after he was hit side-on in a car accident on MacCorkle Avenue at the end of January. He was on his way to Kroger. His 1991, two-door Fleetwood Coupe Cadillac was totaled. It was a limited edition, his pride and joy. Cox also broke six ribs, had a collapsed lung and was off work for more than two months.
The first day he came back to the barbershop, so did his squirrel.
Stubs has taken some leaves of absence herself over the years (to have babies -- that's how Cox knows she's female). She stopped coming to the shop once for 10 weeks and then suddenly reappeared.
Cox isn't sure what attracts the squirrel to his door each day, other than the peanuts. He's not particularly an animal lover, and he doesn't feed squirrels at home.
Perhaps, on the sly, Stubs is visiting the storefronts and shops up and down D Street, gathering nuts every day from proprietors who think they're her sole source of nourishment.
Cox doesn't think so.
"I know my squirrel."
Contact writer Kris Wise at 348-1244.