A haircut is not necessarily just a haircut.
Just ask clients of local barber Irving Greenberg, who has been cutting hair for 50 years, all but one of those years in Charleston.
Many customers are loyal to Greenberg, not only for his well-honed skills but for good conversation, advice, the rare treat of an old-school shave and even to exchange a book or two.
Greenberg, 69, has worked at Oskar’s Family Barber Shop in South Windermere since 1986. He is versatile, being as comfortable giving squirming boys their first haircuts to going to Bishop Gadsden retirement community to cut hair for customers who have moved there and are unable to get to the shop.
Despite approaching 70 and spending thousands of hours on his feet, Greenberg says he has no plans to retire.
“I don’t know what I’d do. It’s my whole life — dealing with people. I’ve had conversations with some people for 50 years.”
He adds, “I still learn from my customers, especially my older ones. They are wise. They’ve put the time in. They always have something significant to say. You learn from people.”
He shares his passion for reading with many of his customers, whom he exchanges books with on a regular basis.
“I get the best reviews you can ever imagine because I have so many customers who are avid readers. We exchange books constantly. The good ones I save, and I know certain people like to read certain books.”
His “significant other” of nearly 30 years, Doris Cook, says Greenberg loves his work too much to leave it.
“His clientele are the fathers of the city,” says Cook. “He’ll be there until the end. I know that.”
Starting in the Navy
A career with the clippers started in the Navy in 1963, when Greenberg got on-the-job training on the aircraft carrier Saratoga, the flagship for the Sixth Fleet.
“The admiral was on board, so you had to be squared away. If your haircut was too long, or shoes unshined, or a button was unbuttoned, you had to serve extra duty or couldn’t go on liberty. If your hair wasn’t cut properly, they’d bring you down to the barbershop and skin you.”
After that year, Greenberg came home and went to barber school.
“I always wanted to work for myself. I really didn’t want a boss. I wanted to do it my way. So I figured if I were a barber, after paying my dues and learning the skills, that would be how I could have that life.”
After barber school, he apprenticed with Carl Bunch at Bunch’s Barber Shop, located catty-corner from Berlins on Broad Street for 18 months. Then he went to the Heart of Charleston Motel, which used to be the Charleston Hotel for 12 years, and eventually took over the lease.
Before moving to Oskar’s in 1986, he worked as a “free agent” for 12 years at the Charleston Inn on Lockwood Drive near the Medical University of South Carolina.
His other career
One of the reasons he has plenty of stories to tell is that Greenberg had another life as a big-time sport fisherman.
For 40 years, Greenberg was an independent boat captain but worked primarily for the late Dennis Lee of Henry J. Lee Distributors. The job took him to Florida, the Bahamas and even farther, to the waters of Venezuela and Ecuador.
“For most of that time, I had a barbershop and had people working for me. I’d mark out X amount of days in January so I wouldn’t miss anybody. Some customers would call and (coworkers would) say Irving’s out sick today, and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah. Where is he fishing?’ ”
Nine years ago, after Lee developed Alzheimer’s disease and later died, Greenberg gave up the physical demands of sport fishing, but he seems content with the great memories.
“The reason I elected to fish when I was young, I knew that when I was old, I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
Nobody knows Greenberg like Cook.
“I found him back in the 1980s at what used to be a quaint jazz club (Myskyns). ... He was standing at my spot at the bar,” says Cook.
Cook and Greenberg quickly found out that they shared a passion for the water. While his thing was fishing and powerboats, she loved sailing.
“Water was the bond,” says the 59-year-old Cook, who used to be an avid cyclist in Charleston long before the roads started filling up with them.
The two got even closer in July 2009, when Cook was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer that starts in the plasma cells in bone marrow.
She describes Greenberg as “her rock” through the initial treatment, a stem-cell transplant in March 2011 using cells from her own blood, “which saved my life,” and ongoing treatments, which includes daily oral chemotherapy.
“She’s doing really well,” says Greenberg. “She’s under the care of MUSC. It’s not a curable disease, but it’s treatable. In the last few years, they have made great strides in medications ... but (she) also has a good attitude.”
Helping Cook isn’t the first time Greenberg has played a role in healing.
As a barber, he sees a lot of suspicious moles and spots, some of which have turned out to be melanoma, on the heads and necks of customers.
“There’s so much skin cancer it’s unbelievable. ... I think I’ve saved (the lives of) at least a dozen people,” Greenberg says of spotting possible cancers and urging people to see a dermatologist. “They (customers) can’t see the top of their head, behind their ears, in their ears. I can and if I see something, I say something.”
“I had a customer who had a mole under his nose. I kept telling him it was getting bigger and that I didn’t like it. I said to him, ‘If you don’t do something about it, you’re going to have to find a new barber because I can’t stand watching this thing happen.’ ”
“He ended up having six surgeries on his face.”
Not on the radar
During a rainy February day at the barbershop, customers made it clear why Greenberg doesn’t want to hang up the scissors.
Customer Jon Alley and Greenberg were talking and laughing. Alley says he’s known Greenberg “a real long time.”
“He is an excellent barber because he cuts my hair very well and cuts to my head. But it’s just a joy to be with him. He’s just so much fun to listen to. He has very interesting stories and a fascinating life. He’s just a joy to be around.”
Bill Heigold, 79, was waiting for his haircut and listening to Alley and Greenberg cut up with a smile on his face.
“I look forward to getting my hair cut because I like him,” Heigold says of Greenberg. “I like him. He gives a good haircut, especially for me because I don’t have much hair. But he’s so pleasant and has good stories.”
Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Irving Greenberg, as a toddler, sits near his family’s beach house on Folly Beach on Sept. 1, 1944.×
Irving Greenberg shares a laugh with longtime customer and friend Jon Alley during a recent haircut at Oskar’s Family Barber Shop. Alley says, “It’s just a joy to be with (Greenberg). He’s just so much fun to listen to. He has very interesting stories and a fascinating life.”×