Last week, Samuel Jenkins made good on a promise he made to his struggling community nearly 18 months ago.
On Tuesday Jenkins arrived at his Angier Avenue barber shop Samuel & Sons at 6:30 a.m. to shine his new black tile floors and prepare the store for its celebratory and literal return from the ashes.
On Jan. 2, 2011, Jenkins received an early morning phone call as he prepared to fish out of his honey hole in Umstead Park.
“I wonder who is calling me at 4 a.m. talking about my shop’s on fire,”” Jenkins said he thought. “I said, ‘It must be somebody playing. They know I am going fishing, and it’s the day after New Year’s.”
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Jenkins soon found his three Angier Avenue buildings in flames and a tenant who leased one of those spots for the Triangle Trophy Center with tears rolling down his face.
A transformer had blown and caused a fire to erupt from a fuse box in the trophy shop (which plans to re-open later this month), Jenkins said.
Jenkins was shocked, he said, but he promised to not to give up.
“I told them ‘We are going to rebuild, and we are going to have a cook out,’” Jenkins said. “My word is my bond.”
Jenkins’ promise was significant for many reasons. First, Samuel & Sons was more than a barber shop, say those who know North East Central Durham, a community anchored by the intersection of Angier Avenue and Driver Street.
“This is where people came to argue about neighborhood development. This is where they came to argue about politics, even when they were not getting their haircut,” said Melvin Whitley, chair of the Northeast Central Durham Leadership Council.
Whitley’s initial response to the fire centered on what caused it.
“Then it dawned on me that our hope for this corner now has an eyesore,” he said. “And so the hope and ambition in the community was now in question.”
Many, many years ago the corner was an economic hub for the city, Whitley said. Businesses and many residents, however, fled or bunkered down behind barred windows as the prostitutes and drug dealers moved in.
Roy Dolinger 75, said when he started working as a custodian for the Angier Avenue Baptist Church seven years ago, he was advised “to not risk going outside unless he really had to” due to the crime.
Jenkins and others have improved the area by discouraging and fighting the crime, Dolinger and others said. Other notable area improvements include Joe Bushfan’s opening Joe Diner’s on the Angier-Driver corner at the end of 2009. TROSA opened a grocery in May 2010, but it closed earlier this year.
The city is also moving forward with a $3.4 million plan to transform the area with new streets and sidewalks and street lamps similar to downtown and Ninth Street, Whitley said. The block is also expecting a new restaurant and a catering commissary.
“This is an important day,” Whitley said Tuesday. “Because this has been a treasure to the community, and the treasure is back.”
Two days off
After the fire, Jenkins took two days off. Then he bought two crowbars, a sledgehammer, and some face masks.
“I looked at the building and said it is time to go to work,” he said.
Using scripture as inspiration, Jenkins said he maintained a steadfast consistency as he ripped off the roof, skinned the walls down to the bricks, and pulled up the Duke University blue tile.
Jenkins worked at a barber shop down the road, but still had to dip into his savings, along with sell wires, plumbing, two trucks and a 1992 burgundy and white BMW to pay the mortgage and support his family, which includes two sons, 8 and 10. Jenkins also has a daughter, 23.
Jenkins doesn’t believe men should cry, but “I ain’t going to say you don’t get no frogs in your throat,” he said. “I have sucked up a lot of frogs in here.”
By 9 a.m. Tuesday Jenkins stood in front of the store grilling his signature marinated chicken wings. Hamburgers, hot dogs, and shrimp would follow.
Locals stopped by for conversation or to sample Jenkins’ oatmeal, peanut butter and chocolate chip cookies. Cars and trucks rambling down Angier honked or pulled over to find out what time lunch would be served.
By 9:30 a.m., Jenkins was giving his first hair cut on Terry Jones, 24.
“This is the place you come to get a haircut, learn a good lesson, and be entertained at the same time,” said Jones. “Always feeling different than what you feel when you came in.”
At age 14, Jenkins moved from New Jersey to live with his grandmother in Littleton, N.C.
Jenkins said he asked his grandmother when they were going to the barber shop. She responded that barber shop visits were reserved for the start of school and major holidays.
Jenkins decided to order a $2 razor comb from an almanac.
“I started cutting my own hair, then my brothers and cousins became my customers, then people in the neighborhood became my customers,” he said. Jenkins joined the U.S. Navy, where he also cut hair, before he followed his mother to Durham.
How to live life
“When you cut hair you find out things about people,” he said. “They are going to tell you where they came from. They are going to tell you about their problems. They are going to help you learn how to live life on its own terms, and when you go through the struggles you are going to get advice from them.”
But there is also something magical about the haircut itself, said Jenkins and some of his customers.
“If you find a person who is down and out and feeling bad, get his hair cut, get her hair cut,” Jenkins said. “She will feel better about herself.”
Jenkins, a recovering cocaine addict, cut hair in the area for about 17 years. He opened his own store about 12 years ago. The store became known as a place where people could purchase clothing, seek advice or learn the latest political news or gossip.
The new shop will continue that role in a more adaptable, well thought out space, that includes an area for customers to eat and children to play, Jenkins said.
In the center of the shop hangs a painting, marred with a couple of dark spots from the fire, of a 1950s barber shop filled with African American men.
Jenkins said he kept it because it reminds him about a trade that historically has been about so much more than a shave and a haircut.
“Barber shops come from the heart,” he said. “They come from the heart and the struggle of life.”