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A Barbershop of Chords but No Cuts Is Hanging On by a String

Miles Spicer plays with friends during the weekly jam session at the Alpha Tonsorial Barbershop in Northeast. The rent has been $300, but now the trustees for the owner want to sell the property.
Miles Spicer plays with friends during the weekly jam session at the Alpha Tonsorial Barbershop in Northeast. The rent has been $300, but now the trustees for the owner want to sell the property. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

In a city where rents seem rocket-propelled and retailers hungrily snap up almost any space, the barbershop has managed to sit unchanged. Two bottles of electric green Jeris Hair Tonic sit on the shelf, just where Edwards last used them. There's a black-and-white TV under the mirror and a 1950s radio console up front.

On the wall in the back, some old jottings of Edwards's are framed, lyrics to a song about John F. Kennedy, and some other lines, too: "If you don't like my peaches, why don't you stop shaking my tree; if you don't stop shaking my tree, just come out of my orchard and leave my peaches to me."

A coffee can labeled "Donations" sits on the shelf. There's maybe $6 in it.

"It's not like the symphony with its patrons," Baytop says. "People who love the blues got the blues."

As word spread about the real estate situation this summer, local musicians called and wrote with support. There have been crises before, and every time the shop is threatened, "no matter what we've needed, it's almost like the Bible said, 'Speak and ye shall be given,' " Baytop says. When the society needed to set itself up as a nonprofit group, "I swear, guy walks through the door, harmonica on his hip, and he's a lawyer working with nonprofits and he asks if we need any help with that. His firm gave us $7,000 of legal work."

Miles Spicer, a guitar player and treasurer of the foundation who works for CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, keeps a mental catalogue of the foreign visitors who drop by and then head home to spread the gospel of the barbershop. "They come back every year or two, or they send their friends," he says. "And some of them come to play with us. Most anyone can learn this; if you fall in with the right people and turn off the television, it doesn't take long."

My son, who is 10, plays a bit of piano but hadn't attempted the blues. The barbershop adopted him, and inside of 20 minutes he was leading a dozen musicians in an extended jam.

Jim Lande, the clarinet man, who carves the wooden bones that anyone who pops in can pick up to join the rhythm section, leans over to tell my son "a little secret: If you get the rhythm right, people don't worry so much about the notes."

Maybe Sibert is the latest in a series of miracles that have kept the home of the blues open. Maybe not. But on Saturday afternoons on Bunker Hill Road, there's no anxiety in the air. The rhythm is right, and ain't nobody worrying so much about the notes.

E-mail:marcfisher@washpost.com


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