The electric clippers at Another Level Barber Shop are humming to their own tune. The scent of coconut hair oil fills the air, while the overhead television blares sports and war news inside the little stone building in Alexandria's historic Parker-Gray neighborhood.
The scene on North Patrick Street could be from the '50s or '60s: A room filled with men -- some in for a haircut, others in for conversation -- talking about the latest happenings around the corner or around the world.
Last week, as talk of war in Iraq and Final Four basketball swept through the room, there also was talk about the former proprietor of the shop. Daniel Williamson, a local minister and neighborhood legend, had died, another somber reminder that although life inside the shop may feel the same, life outside continues to change.
For 40 years, Williamson and a cadre of other barbers cut the hair of the African American men who lived in the community's modest rowhouses and presided over the neighborhood's social domain. Now, middle-class whites and blacks have moved in, snapping up cozy 100-year-old houses convenient to Metro and Old Town and just a short walk from the Potomac River.
"He and Jimmy Red and a few others . . . looked out for everyone," said Rick Wanzer, who grew up in the neighborhood and now owns Williamson's old shop. "It's a different community now, but we want to keep some things the same."
That's the talk in the proud Parker-Gray District these days. The pillars of the old community are slowly fading. Many have moved -- forced out, some say -- by soaring real estate prices. Others have taken advantage and sold their property at a profit, transforming what some called the Harlem of Alexandria into just another urban neighborhood.
Census figures tell the story: 92 percent "Negro" in 1970, and 8 percent "Caucasian." Today, 45 percent African American, 43 percent white. For some, the shift is like losing an old friend. For others -- even those who grew up in the community -- it's about new opportunities.
Wanzer, 36, and his wife Yvonne, 37, took over from Williamson last year. They are the third generation of stylists in local lawyer Bobby Stafford's two-story building. In the beginning, red vinyl chairs furnished the room, and an old candy machine held the price list and haircut chart. The Wanzers have modernized with red counters and gleaming tile for a new group of customers.
"It was a good opportunity for us," said Yvonne Wanzer, who has a beauty salon next door. She and Rick met in the neighborhood more than 30 years ago. "We had never owned anything, and Mr. Stafford gave us a chance."
And the couple is not alone in wanting to do business in the transformed neighborhood. A few mom and pop shops that once served schoolteachers and domestic workers, federal employees and janitors, are searching for the next chapter for their businesses. There's Peoples Flower Shop, which since 1943 has been arranging flowers from a woodframe rowhouse on Alfred Street. Today it's run by Lewis Moore, grandson of the original owner Mariam Bracey, and many of his new customers are renovating nearby homes.
Then there's Sgt. Soul Food, on Queen, the street that many have likened to Harlem's 125th street and Washington's U Street. The eatery has been around for more than 30 years and still serves up fried fish sandwiches on white bread, macaroni and cheese and grape sodas.
For the Wanzers, it is more about sound business than historical legacy. This was an opportunity to turn trade into ownership. But the rhythm of the Williamson barbershop remains. On a recent afternoon, a few separate conversations filled the small room against the sound of the television and those humming shears. Magazines about hip-hop and sports are piled next to the window. A bell above the door tinkles each time someone goes in or out. The conversation for the day: where to get the best fish sandwich.
"The place around the corner . . . that's where they have the best sandwiches, I'm telling you," insisted barber Tony Valentine, to laughter all around.
Building owner Stafford said, "These kids really have turned that place around. It's a real pleasure to have them."