Like any ole’ town, Opelika has changed over the years. Some changes were for the better, some … not as much. Through it all, the building addressed 223 S. 8th St. has remained.
According to previous owner Phil Gorham (71), who operated a barbershop at the location from 1985 to December 2020, the building has been serving the community of Opelika as far back (if not further) as the 1930s.
“I had one retired judge, Noah Baker, tell me he could remember getting a haircut there in 1938,” Phil said. “So, the shop was there probably 80-plus years [before we owned it].”
Born and raised in Opelika, Phil returned to 223 S. 8th St. to share with me his portion of Opelika’s history. A man of average stature, modest clothing — aside from the 4-inch, silver-plated belt buckle he wore — and without a misplaced smoke-colored hair on his head, Phil certainly looked the part. From the onset of our conversation, he exuded a certain charisma and Southern charm that presumably lent to his longevity as the “go-to” barber in this little railroad town.
With him was his wife, Teresa, who was also born and raised in Opelika; she complimented every story he told with a loving perspective that only a spouse of a small business owner could. Prior to the Gorham’s, the building housed a barbershop that belonged to Jerry and Joann Weldon. One side was a beauty shop, the other a barber. Jerry passed away in 1984, and soon after the Gorham’s were approached and asked to purchase the business.
“I had many people tell me [Jerry] may have been one the best barbers there ever was in Opelika, and a very good man,” Phil said. “I just had hoped that I could live up to his reputation as a barber, and as a person.”
At the time, the Gorham’s also owned a bakery just a few doors down — aptly named “The Sweet Shop”. The bakery remained opened until 1990, and for a while, Phil pulled double duty, baking donuts at 2 a.m. then traveling to barber school in Montgomery thereafter
You see, Phil’s grandfather was a barber, too. Cutting hair was always “in the blood” as Phil said. If there was ever any more doubt for Phil’s acumen for hair-cutting, his time in barber school all but laid out his path to a successful career.
“The professor told him ‘you don’t need to come over here, you are just a natural,’” Teresa said.
Over the next 30-plus years of operating his barbershop, Phil heard thousands of stories come and go through his doors.
“It was great,” Phil said. “I met a lot of people. Not only were they customers, they became friends too.”
Customers came from near — Macon, Chambers, Russell and Lee County. Customers came from far — France, Germany and Egypt. Blue collar, white collar, no collar … four generations of families … even a number of women who preferred Phil’s style to that of a beautician came and sat in his trademark blue chairs.
Phil said he especially enjoyed the stories from WWII veterans and recalled another unique instance when a customer recounted the time his grandfather had a Western-style draw down in the middle of town … many things have changed.
The cost of his cuts went from $5 to $14. Shaves became a thing of the past. Phil’s business persevered through a few failed attempts at revitalizing downtown Opelika, and carried on through the attempt that finally stuck and has contributed so greatly to the city’s progress since the turn of the century. He started as one of at least five barbershops in the downtown area, and outlasted them all. He was once even featured in a story by the Associated Press in the early 2000s, detailing the fading trend of authentic barbershops.
In the end, the unfortunate circumstances of the COVID pandemic and the physical ailments placed on Phil’s body by the nature of the job were eventually too much.
He fondly remembers his final haircut — a tender moment with his son, Phillip, who witnessed his dad’s commitment and service to a community for so many years.
“[Our son] said he was the first and wanted to be the last,” Teresa said. “It was a good occasion.”
In the building which once housed Phil’s shop now sits The Observer, Opelika’s award-winning newspaper publication “for local people, by local people.” The change of ownership was made complete when Phil retired at the end of 2020.
The Gorham’s said they are pleased that the history of their business and the buiding can be preserved in this way.
“We are glad,” Teresa said. “We were so thrilled. For years, we were like who will want it, what will happen to it?”
It is poetic, in a way, that The Observer fills the void left by the Gorham’s shop. Despite Phil’s absence, 223 S. 8th St. is continuing to tell stories of the city he serviced for so many years. A barber and a newspaper are similar in that way. They both require trust, personal connections and attention to detail. It was once said that, “There is nothing more powerful in the world than a good story.”
And, “If you need stories, just talk to a barber,” Teresa said.
“Or,” I replied, “just pick up a newspaper.”