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Reflecting on 54 years behind a barber’s chair

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By John Shindlebower

 

Spending over half a century talking to the back of people’s heads can give you a unique perspective on life. For Larry Riley, it also provided a way of making a living, making life-long friends and passing on a family legacy.

Riley retired recently after 54 years as a barber when he set down his scissors and switched off his clippers for the last time in January. But he can’t resist coming back to Riley’s Barber and Styling, often two or three times a day, to spend time chatting with the friends he’s made over the years.

“It’s all I know,” said Riley, as he talked about his career as a barber that started with a year of apprenticeship in Bardstown, before he opened up his own shop in Taylorsville in 1966.

He spent many hours as a child in a barber shop as well, as his father cut hair for 47 years. He said he can remember sitting in that shop and reading through Field & Stream magazines as the customers would share tales and swap stories with his father.

He imagined he’d just cut hair until he got out of school, but Riley made a career out of it and those tales and stories he’d heard as a boy just continued over the next five decades.

And he hears plenty, especially in a small community like Spencer County.

“If somebody dropped a quarter in Waterford, I could tell you if it landed on heads or tails,” Riley said with a laugh. Although he admitted that the story would probably be told with a half dozen versions in his shop.

“You hear everything,” he said.

“And some of it you wish you hadn’t,” said Autumn Shelburne with a laugh.

Riley said he hired Autumn 18 years ago to take his place. He said he’s retired about a dozen times, but this time he seems to mean it. He gave his shop to his daughter, Michelle. A son, Larry, Jr., has also worked at the shop and a grandson, Phillip, has taken up the family trade as well.

That leaves Larry with more time to spend at the lake, where he’s been involved in a weekly fishing tournament since 1986. He said he also plans to use his free time “just piddling.”

But he’ll also make his way back to the shop where he’s spent decades hearing the latest news in the community, hearing about what’s happening in the lives of customers, and watching customers bring in their children and even grandchildren. Riley said he’s cut the hair of some family members spanning five generations.

“You get to know a lot of people,” he said reflecting on his time behind the barber’s chair.

That he continues to come in day after day, even in retirement, is a testament that Riley’s career was always more than just a job.

“It’s really not like a job like going to G.E. or something like that. It gets to be more like a way of life,” he said.

Riley walked away from the job, but won’t let go of his way of life. That means if you visit the shop, you may very well see Riley. Only, he won’t have to talk to the back of your head, so practice telling those tall tales and fishing stories with a straight face.