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After six decades, Gainesville barber clips his final locks
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Bills Sanders is reflected in a mirror in the corner of his shop, Bill’s Styling Four, while giving a haircut to regular customer Mike Riddle. Sanders is retiring after nearly six decades of cutting hair in Gainesville. - photo by Tom Reed

Bill Sanders figured he’d give up cutting hair if he ever got shaky hands.

His hands remained steady and so did his career, which spanned 63 years, mostly in Gainesville, of working with scissors, shears and razors.

So, Friday was bittersweet, as the 81-year-old Sanders closed the door to Bill’s Styling Four at 501 Washington St., Gainesville, for the final time.

“I’ve enjoyed the people — that’s been the main thing,” said Sanders, who’s worked at the same location near West Academy Street since 1984. “I feel like I’ve gained a lot of friends, and I’ll miss ’em.”

There was nothing too fancy about Bill Sanders’ barbershop.

Customers entered to a small waiting area at the front door. A flat-screen TV stayed fixed on a news channel, serving as background noise to conversations in the room and Sanders’ humming razor.

Last week, as he prepared Mike Riddle of Gainesville for a haircut, Sanders said, “I’ve been cutting this fellow’s hair for a long time,” to which Riddle quickly replied, “Since the early ’70s, something like that.”

Sanders went on to talk about retirement to his 70-acre farm in Jackson County. “I’ve got a bunch of old cows ...”

“And a tattoo parlor,” Riddle interrupted, drawing a hearty laugh from the veteran barber.

Banter like that helped Sanders forge relationships with customers, who would go on to become regulars.

“He’s such a good, down-to-earth man and I enjoy talking with him,” said Tom Day, a faithful customer between 1985 and 1990 and since returning to Hall County in 2005.

“Our conversation ranges everything from fireman practices to politics to religion. It’s an enjoyable haircut. I consider him my friend, not just a barber.”

“Fireman practices” is a reference to Sanders’ family. While barbering was part of Sanders’ heritage, it wasn’t so much with his offspring. His son is a poultry farmer and his two grandsons are firefighters.

Sanders learned his craft in his native Jackson County. His father was a barber, as was his uncle, who ran a shop in Lula.

“I grew up in the country, where there was a lot of boys, and I started cutting their hair,” he said.

Sanders didn’t always want to be a barber. He toyed with becoming an electrician, but after a week of training, he decided that wasn’t for him.

He also applied for a job with General Motors, “but I had been barbering for six months and had built up a clientele.”

Sanders went on to a barber college in Atlanta and off to work for his uncle, who “taught me how to shave.”

He later moved to Gainesville and started working in a shop next to what was Bishop’s Cafe on Broad Street.

Sanders later cut hair at Townview Plaza shopping center, Lakeshore Mall and finally, Washington Street.

“I’ll tell you what I like about this place: You don’t have walk-ins,” he said of his last location. “You get people who have been sent to you. That’s really been what I’ve enjoyed.”

Used to working with men for most of his career, a friend in the industry suggested he employ women and make the business cater to men and women.

“He said, ‘Become a family shop and you’ll make a lot more money,’ and it worked,” Sanders said.

He began working with three colleagues, leading to the name “Styling Four.”

As he closed his business last week, two other employees — Brenda Turpin and Emma Webb — were ending long careers with him.

Since 1952, Sanders has been either an owner or part owner of a shop.

And through the years, adapting to certain techniques and hairstyles, he maintained a certain philosophy about his craft.

“I think you kinda got to know what (the haircut) will look like when you start,” he said. “ It’s like a drawing. That’s the best way to explain it. “

Sanders never really considered stopping his work until his wife of 61 years, Johnnie, and his son, Ricky, began to ask him, “While you’re able, why don’t you retire?”

“They’ve been after me for two years,” he said.

He finally decided to take the plunge about two months ago, with insurance, business license and rent payments looming in December.

“That’s what brought about the timing,” Sanders said.

And last week, as he reflected on his career, he spoke as one with a sudden realization.

“I reckon barbering is a dying trade,” he said. “When I went to work (in Gainesville), there was three and four barbers in every shop all over this town. They must have went to the beauty shops or something, I don’t know.”

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