Belief and barbering: James McCullar builds community and faith through hometown barbershop

Franklin Living July-August 2022

A small white building on the hill overlooking North Washington Avenue in Russellville can be easily identified as a barber shop thanks to the iconic striped barber pole on the front porch – and, of course, by the large sign identifying it as McCullar and Reed’s. The McCullar in question, James McCullar, has been cutting hair in Russellville more than six decades.

The local barber joined the profession in 1961, at the age of 19, on the advice of his father. As the young man’s high school days at Phil Campbell were coming to an end, his father encouraged him to pursue barbering because, in a clever witticism, “that business grows every day.”

“I wanted to be my own boss, and I enjoyed people,” McCullar explained. “I got to thinking, ‘I’ll never get to meet more people than being in that business.’ It’s been very joyous and rewarding. Not only that, but I learned – which contributed later to my ministry – about the nature and disposition of people.”

He attended barbering school in Hamilton and soon had people in his own chair, clipping and styling and making new friends. It’s always been about the people for him – the relationships, the community, the opportunity to build connections. “Every day I looked forward to being there,” he said. “I looked forward to getting to meet new people and share in their experiences. The fellowship was so enriching. Sometimes your heart would really be touched by some of the experiences some of those people had to endure.”

There’s so many stories that flood his memory, McCullar has a hard time bringing particular ones to mind. “You had to keep an optimistic attitude about things,” McCullar added. “I learned to discard the pessimism. Just keep a positive approach to people and be thankful, above all things.”

McCullar reflects back on his early years of barbering, when all day long he could glance out the window and see horses and wagons traveling up and down the streets of Russellville. He recalls it as a better time, when downtown was packed with stores carrying local made-in-America clothing, and when people were more conscientious and fastidious about their appearance – and wanted regular, consistent haircuts to look neat and presentable. It was a time he’d be at the shop before sun up to serve customers, and he still be there cutting hair long after dark. Of course, that was back when a haircut cost 75 cents.

He built the shop he’s in today several years ago, but he started out right nearby the current location, in a shop across from Felton Hardware, before the bank bought him out.

Over time McCullar has worked in partnership with more than a dozen other barbers in his shop – but his favorites, hands down, have been his wife Ruby and his daughter Renee Reed. Ruby, whom he married in 1962, worked with him for nearly 30 years. His daughter Renee joined them when she was 20 or 21. He teases them that he had to work with them because they couldn’t get a job anywhere else. He said he has also taken great pleasure in working with Belinda Kilpatrick, who has been at the shop for 31 years now.

These days McCullar is partially retired, working one full day a week at the shop. He started cutting back on his hours about seven years ago.

Despite the joy he has found in his years of barbering – “I don’t think there’s anybody who could have looked forward to being in their business more than I have. Of course, you know I’ve had to have enjoyed it, being in it 61 years” – he finds far more fulfillment in his primary life passion: sharing the gospel, which he has been doing nearly ever since his conversion, at age 32.

“The experiences I had were nothing to compare with experiences in my ministry. That was so much more joyous, rewarding, so much more spiritually beneficial,” said McCullar. “I like to share my Lord. Nothing could bring more joy and contentment in life.”

He began preaching and pastoral work soon after becoming a Christian, answering the call to ministry. He has preached at many churches in the local area and into Mississippi, frequently serving as an interim for churches between full-time assignments. He has spoken at nursing homes and officiated funerals – more than 1,000 of them – as well as many weddings.

“It’s all about bearing fruit for God and keeping self out of the way,” explained McCullar, who has spent countless hours reading the scriptures. He makes notes about his studies in stack after stack of spiral notebooks, which he keeps to reference.

“The most important fact in my life is my faith in Christ and being able to serve him in the ministry these 45 years,” he said. “That’s the one thing I can boast of: being in Christ. Living a life through faith in Christ will exceed and excel all these other things you might accomplish. A lot of people don’t give that any thought, even as a Christian. We need to weigh things out – decisions, determinations that we make – to really know, ‘Am I demonstrating Christ? Am I living according to his goals?’

“It’s a joy to share the Lord. It’s the sweetest joy in life, and I tell you what, I wouldn’t take anything for it.”

In addition to their daughter Renee, James and Ruby have two sons, Phil and Mark, seven grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.