Dispensing wisdom with style, barber presides in Camden ‘oasis’

    Russell Farmer’s barbershop sits on a rundown block in the Lanning Square neighborhood of Camden. On the outside, the facade is bleak — bars on the windows, graffiti on the walls, a police car idling nearby, waiting, ready to chase.

    But step inside, and the atmosphere is transformed.

    The noise of the city fades as the sweet swell of classical music fills the air.

    “I regard it as an oasis in an otherwise destitute and arid community,” said Farmer.

    At 73, with philosopher-length gray hair and beard, Farmer stands behind the shop’s lone barber chair and gives a customer a trim.

    “What barbershop you ever been to that plays classical music?” said regular customer Sam Melendez.

    Typically, Melendez, 42, listens to electronica music — much more Daft Punk than Dvořák, but coming to Farmer’s shop has opened up his tastes.

    “I never liked classical music,” he said, “and now I just got to listen to it.”

    Socrates with scissors

    The walls are decorated with signs and artifacts that Farmer says represent the positive gains of America’s minorities. From Fredrick Douglas to Barack Obama to the best he’s seen in Camden.

    Farmer’s place — officially called R.C.’s Universal Tonsorial Parlor — is much more than just a barbershop. It’s a museum. It’s a food bank. It’s a town hall that regularly hosts events on community health, elderly care and the study of black history.

    “It’s a classroom. It’s a meeting place,” said Farmer. “It’s where steel sharpens steel. Men sharpen each other when you come in here.”

    To his many loyal customers, Farmer is like Socrates with scissors. Copernicus with clippers. The Malcolm X of the tight fade. When people sit in Farmer’s chair, all subject matters are open for discussion: From politics to gardening to self-improvement.

    Based on his own rocky past, Farmer’s a bit of an expert on the latter. There was a point about 30 years ago, he says, that he felt completely lost.

    “I didn’t know who I was at that point of my life,” he says. “Like most of the people in the street, I was looking for a status symbol.

    “You know the big car, the flashy clothes, the attractive women. You don’t know who you are.”

    Eventually, Farmer says he looked long and hard at himself in the mirror and decided to completely change the way he approached life.

    Pay it forward

    Since then, he’s been relating his own experiences and struggles as a way to educate his younger customers and direct them toward a life of knowledge, personal empowerment and love.

    Louis Benitez doesn’t mind bypassing all the barbershops in his east Camden neighborhood to go to Farmer’s.

    “The barbershops I used to go into, there was always thugs and craziness,” said Benitez. “Here you meet truck drivers, judges, cops, all kinds of people. You always learn something from sports to religion. It’s always something you learn from him.”

    Charles Dortch serves Camden County as a Superior Court judge. He’s been getting his hair cut at Farmer’s shop for 32 years.

    “He’s been a tremendous mentor to me and he’s always thinking about the community no matter what the odds, and I think that’s a great lesson to pass on to kids,” said Dortch.

    Howard Jones is a 19-year vet of the Camden Fire Department. Now 52, Jones has been coming to the barbershop since he was 12. He can still remember how Farmer would trick him and his friends into studying harder in high school.

    “If we were here on Saturday morning,” said Jones, “[He’d say] ‘How’d you do in school this week? All right, let’s pick it up. Matter of fact, next marking period, report cards come out, why don’t you bring it down? Maybe I might tighten you up with a free cut.'”

    Abiding loyalty

    For Sam Melendez, Farmer is the only barber he’ll see. Even though he now lives in Bristol, Pa., he gets his haircut in Camden every two weeks, no exceptions.

    Yes, he comes for styling, but more so because he says Farmer’s intellectual challenges changed the way he thinks.

    “When I first started coming here, I was you know, your stereotypical person from the urban area, doing certain things I shouldn’t be doing” said Melendez. “I was out there drinking, and acting the fool and clubbing and not thinking about family and friends, and as I came here more and more, he helped me mature.”

    Empowered by Farmer’s wisdom, Melendez, now a supervisor for the charity Philabundance, says he’s a happily married family man.

    “He stepped forward in the face of adversity,” said Farmer. “He could have stayed on the corner with his peers, but he saw the need for a man, and he stepped up and that’s what he is.”

    Melendez’s loyalty to Farmer runs so deep, he says the day Farmer retires is the day he will shave his head.

    “It’s just coming all off, so I don’t have to go to anywhere else,” said Melendez. “I’ll retire with him.”

    Russell Farmer’s annual Black History in the Barbershop event will take place Wednesday morning starting at 10 a.m. at R.C.’s Universal Tonsorial Parlor, 437 S. Fifth St., Camden.

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