The smell of fresh after shave and the sounds of laughter and scissors working often fill the air in a typical day at Wilburn’s Barber Shop in downtown Lenoir City.
Complete with three worn-down, traditional barber chairs, framed old newspaper clippings and magazines, a set of old waiting chairs and Christian decorations, customers are immediately taken back to simpler times.
Born and raised in Lenoir City, Wilburn Clemmer, 84, has spent the last 65 years cutting hair and developing lifelong friendships. Clemmer often looks out the window across Broadway Street and reminisces about where it all started.
“The business started over there across the street and when I was a kid, I got my hair cut in Loudon,” he said. “A friend talked me into going to barber school and wanted me to come over there and I talked to him. I started working there in 1955. Another man came and I worked for him, and he bought me out. His name was Jim Collins, and I worked for him for 28 years.”
On March 6, 1999, a fire destroyed Clemmer’s barber shop and forced him to move across the street to the current location of 105 West Broadway St., in front of the Roane State Community College building.
Clemmer dropped out of high school to attend barber school — a move he said paid off in the long run.
“I had a school buddy out in Piney out from Loudon, and he had a shop down there that was his uncle’s,” Clemmer said. “After grammar school, his uncle killed himself and he said, ‘I want to go ahead to barber school and I want you to go with me.’ I was a freshman in high school, and I quit to go to barber school with him. My mother worked over here at the mill and borrowed money, and that’s how I got to go to barber school.”
He’s seen “a lot of changes” in the trade over the last six decades, ranging from trendy haircuts to advanced tools.
His secrets to staying in business are faith and a passion for people.
“The Lord has been really good to me,” Clemmer said. “The people in Loudon County and Lenoir City have been good to me and surrounding counties have been good to me. They’ve kept me going for whatever reason. I had a fellow come from Beaumont, Texas, to come and get a haircut. The reason I got into barbering is because of the people. When I first started, I was bashful and didn’t talk to people much. If I hadn’t went to barber school, I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
The Rev. David Latham, Woodlawn Baptist Church pastor, has been a loyal customer for many years.
“I’ve known Wilburn for probably 35 or 40 years,” Latham said. “I know a lot of the people that own barbershops in town, and it’s just more of a ministry for Wilburn than it is a business. He’s always loved the Lord, always talks about the Lord. He has people come in and that’s what they talk about, and that’s just rare anymore.”
While there are plenty of barbershops and hair care businesses scattered throughout the county, Wilburn’s Barber Shop stands out for its down-to-earth atmosphere.
“He’s got a lot of older customers, I mean, people have been going there for years,” Latham said. “They just feel at home and everybody just gets along. It’s just a unique type of situation.”
The COVID-19 pandemic forced Clemmer to close his shop for several weeks but business has since recovered. In spite of the challenge, he hasn’t given much thought about retirement and hopes to continue serving customers as long as possible.
“I’ve had my right hip replaced, I’ve had a heart attack and had a splint put in and I’m not retired yet,” Clammer said. “I’m doing good and this hip hasn’t hurt a bit. I would like to keep doing this as long as I’m able to and if the Lord blesses me.”