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CLIPS: A barber to the Marines watches Barracks Row change

Sheila Knox, a barber at Brice's, cuts a customer's hair. "A lot of people cut hair just cut it for the money. You gotta do it because you love it."

Customers wait their turn at Brice's/Wrenn's

Brice's, pre-renovation

Sheila Knox, a female barber on Barracks Row, reflects on community in her changing neighborhood.
This story was produced in partnership with Metro Connection on WAMU 88.5; listen to the story here.
Read other stories in the CLIPS series here.

It's only two long blocks from the closed-for-renovations Brice's Barbershop to its temporary home until the end of summer, but it may as well be Mars.

Sheila Knox, who cuts hair (and sports a tattoo of trimmers, scissors and a comb on her forearm) at Brice's, says her current address at 1005 8th St. SE is fine, but something's missing.

Brice's, at 532 8th St SE has been around forever. And until last summer, it was stubbornly archaic--decor that hadn't been updated since the 1960s; ancient, sprawling plants in the windows. Now it's getting remodeled as part of a building-wide redevelopment (there are apartments above and below the barber shop). And until it's finished, Knox cuts hair down the street, at Wrenn's.

"I do miss it up there," she says. "I laugh, and it's funny, but I do miss it. This may sound crazy, but if I ran out of cranberry juice, I can run over to the bar and say, 'Hey, look, put some cranberry juice in here for me.' Or if I order my lunch at Matchbox, they can bring it to me. You don't get that here. Nobody brings nothing down here. You have to pay for that cranberry juice."

Up on Barracks Row proper, on the other side of Highway 695, "All the tenants are, like, cool with each other, you know? It's, like, love."

"This is nice, but...it's not home."

She's doing OK down at the temporary address--Brice's was, and is, one of the few places that cuts the hair for the Marines at the barracks, who have to get their hair cut before every parade, Tuesday and Friday. (But don't tell anyone: Knox says her high-and-tights last a full week at least.) Either way, on a recent Friday, the shop is full of not just Marines but plenty of people looking for a cut.

After eight years cutting Marines' hair--plus the occasional actor in town at the Shakespeare Theater Company, which operates an office and rehearsal space on 8th St. SE--Knox knows a few things about Marines. Which ones would get into trouble. ("When I first started working here at Brice's, the day I started I had the craziest Marines.") Which ones couldn't afford their weekly cut because they were sending money home. ("I said, 'Come and get your hair cut, man. Pay me when you can.")

'We could use you on 8th Street'
Knox didn't set out to be a barber, but she started cutting hair to make a little extra money. She bounced from shop to shop as owners heard of her skill and invited her in. One day at work, "this Marine came through from Andrews. He was like, 'we could use you on 8th Street.' He was like, 'Man, we don't have anybody over there who can cut hair like this. They would love you.' So I thought about it."

She started a new barbering job, but "all those years I thought about the Marine." One day visiting Marty's American Bar and Grill (now Cava), "I parked in front of the barber shop. I was like, 'Hey, I wonder if that was the barbershop he was talking about. I went in there, I said hey, and the guy in there recognized me."

She asked the owner, Charles "Smitty" Smith, if he was hiring. "Well, I do need somebody," he said, and the Marine in the chair vouched for her.

Knox still wasn't sure about leaving her current barber shop until she realized that the owner she was working for, who she considered a friend, owed a lot of money on the shop. "I worked 'til 10 o'clock and I left and I ain't looked back."

Since then, Barracks Row has been home. Well, until last summer when the remodeling started on Brice's. But after work, Knox puts her clippers away and walks a few blocks up the street to her old home. "It's nice. This guy hugged me up the street. He's never hugged me before. He said, 'Sheila, when you coming back? We miss you.' And that made me feel good."

Read more articles by Rachel Kaufman.

Rachel is the managing editor of Elevation D.C. She also covers tech, business and science for publications nationwide. She lives in Brookland.
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