You see, Gardiner starts cutting hair at 3 o’clock in the morning every weekday, meaning that she contributes in her own quiet way to the goal of making downtown Birmingham a place of around-the-clock activity.
I sat down in one of the shop’s five chairs, and Gardiner wrapped the cape around me. “I want a buzz cut,” I told her. “Just square off the back, trim around the ears and leave short sideburns.”
Gardiner, who has been co-owner of the barbershop with Kay Martin since 1986, started coming in to work early more than a decade ago. She shared an early morning commute with her husband, who had to be at work at 7 a.m. Before long, her customers began requesting appointments even earlier.
“I was up, and I just kept coming earlier, and it just evolved,” she says. “Over the years I’ve built a big early-morning business. “
Many of Gardiner’s customers are busy professionals – businessmen, lawyers and physicians. “The doctors like to come in early before they start rounds,” she says. “They aren’t sure when they’ll be able to get off during the day. A lot of lawyers feel the same way.
“I get a lot of my older customers,” Gardiner says. “They’re like me. They can’t sleep. And they’ll call me at 3 o’clock in the morning. I have several who live out Highway 280, and this is a good time for them to get in and not fight the traffic.”
I asked Gardiner if she considers herself a barber or a stylist. “I consider myself a barber, and there’s not a lot of us left,” she says. “Cosmetology school, beauticians — they don’t teach you to cut the hair out of the ears, they don’t teach you to use straight razors to shave the neck. Women don’t have hair like that.
According to Gardiner, there aren’t many “true” barbershops left.
“Men prefer coming into a place that they think is theirs,” she says. “They know when they come in here there’s not going to be women getting permanents that stink.”
The Tutwiler is certainly a true barbershop, attractive but nothing fancy -- green walls, a green and black tile floor, a few potted plants and a table covered in guy-friendly magazines, including Sports Illustrated, Road & Track and, of course, Playboy.
The shop’s clientele is almost exclusively male. “There are probably three or four women who come in here,” Gardiner says. “I don’t cut their hair. The other girls do. I just tell them if I’d wanted to do women I’d have gone to beauty school.
“Does this look short enough?” she asked.
“You might be able to go just a tad shorter,” I said. “My hair’s receding and I’ve got a bald spot where you could land a Cessna, so I think I look better with the Bruce Willis look.”
“Hey, I’ve got a lot of guys I do like this,” Gardiner said.
I asked Gardiner if she could name any celebrities who’ve come in, perhaps while staying at the hotel. She was able to recall a few off-hand – one of Ozzy Osbourne’s band members, the ringmaster of the Ringling Brothers circus, composer Marvin Hamlisch, even the band Whitesnake, who came in for trims and surprised her with their good manners.
“They’re heavy metal, but everything was ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No, Ma’am.’ They couldn’t have been more polite. My daughter was a teenager and they offered me free tickets for her and her boyfriend to go to the concert.”
A certain local sports-talk radio host came in. “I asked him, ‘Are you the Paul Finebaum I love to hate?’” Gardiner says. “And he never came back for some reason. He could dish it out but I guess he couldn’t take it.
“How do you want your sideburns?” she asked me.
“About an inch,” I said.
Gardner named some of the prominent local business leaders who come in regularly, and it seems clear that the Tutwiler attracts a fair number of the city’s elite. “We do the CEOs of the companies and we do the janitors of the companies, and we think as much of the janitors as we do of the CEOs,” Gardiner says. “In here, everybody’s the same.”
Everybody’s the same all right — and that means everybody gossips.
“You know, one thing it didn’t take me long to learn is that men gossip more than women do,” Gardiner says. “And another thing is what gets said in the barbershop stays in the barbershop. You do not repeat it.
“I thought about writing a book, but I’ve been told that I could probably make more by NOT writing one,” she adds, perhaps making an allusion to her rather prestigious clientele and the secrets they’ve let slip through the years while sitting comfortably in her barber chair.
Gardiner used a razor and warm shaving cream to touch up my sideburns and shave my neck. I love it when barbers do this. It’s like getting a special treatment for which you’d pay dearly at any spa.
It’s the same kind of treatment that Gardiner tries to give to her regulars, including some of her older customers who may have difficulty getting to the shop due to health problems.
“If you think enough to come to me, and if something should happen to you that you can’t come anymore, I’ll come to you,” Gardiner says. She’s been to people’s homes and to their hospital rooms.
“Once or twice, I’ve gone to the funeral home and given them their final haircut,” she says. “That’s not a fun thing to do.
“After so many years, your customers cease to be customers and become friends,” she says. “And I’ve got guys whose hair I’ve cut for 30 years.”
Gardiner and I chatted for a few minutes after she finished my haircut. I looked out the window for signs of daylight and mentioned that she must get to see the sun come up every morning.
“Yeah, everybody complains about the daylight savings time change,” she says. “‘Oh, I have to get up in the dark,’ they’ll say, but I tell them, ‘I get up in the dark everyday.’”
Despite coming to work at such odd hours, Gardiner is not scared about being in the city. “I have always loved downtown,” she says. “I have a lot of people who say, ‘Aren’t you scared to work downtown?’ There’s a lot more that goes on at the Galleria and these other places that just doesn’t get in the paper. In my 31 years, I’ve never had anything that I couldn’t handle.”