Midway Barber Shop is the oldest black-owned business in Carrboro. Here's a look at how Step Edwards runs the shop his father opened.
Above: Step Edwards cuts a customer’s hair while others wait. Photo by Trevor Lenzmeier.
This story was written by Trevor Lenzmeier for UNC’s feature writing class.
When Stepney “Step” Edwards, 59, started sweeping hair for his father at Midway Barber Shop, Dwight Eisenhower was the president of the United States.
Today, Edwards owns Midway, and while the world outside the barber shop has changed drastically, Midway hasn’t budged.
Step Edwards’ father, Stephen Edwards, opened Midway in 1952, making the store the oldest African-American owned business in Carrboro. The building has been remodeled a few times since, but the Rosemary Street structure is the same that Step Edwards says he grew up in. Half a century removed from his introduction to barbering, Edwards still shears customers who remember his father and the early days of Midway.
“People come back into town, the first place they come is back here,” Edwards said. “We’ve had guys been gone for 50, 60 years. I had one guy who came in, he said, ‘I remember when that street was dirt.’”
A few dozen feet from their home behind the First Baptist Church of Chapel Hill, the Edwards family established a meeting space where families and friends from the African-American community could get their hair cut and socialize. For that non-cosmetic value, plus the shop’s deep roots in Chapel Hill and Carrboro, Edwards says Midway is unique.
“One of my slogans is, ‘If you didn’t come to Midway, you missed a Chapel Hill-Carrboro experience,’” Edwards said. “We do an awesome job, number one. Number two, it’s like family. Everybody seems like they’re at home when they’re here.”
Cranston “C” Farrington, 36, is as close to family for Edwards as unrelated people come. Edwards men have cut C’s hair for his entire life, and after barber school, he came back to Midway to start his career. He’s been barbering with Edwards for 17 years.
Farrington says he first considered barbering as a pre-teen when, one summer day at Midway, Edwards pulled a wad of tips from his pocket after a cut. When Farrington tells that story, Edwards pulls his razor back from a customer’s mustache, and turns to Farrington with a furrowed brow.
“That’s off the record,” Edwards said.
“Telling lies is why I wanted to do this,” Farrington said. He then laughed like a kid who made his dad whiff on a high five. “We call that barber shop talk.”
Barber shop talk bounces from the Midway barbers to walk-ins, regulars and newbies lined beneath a wall-length mirror opposite customers cloaked in black robes getting trimmed. It escalates and settles, sometimes blocking out the buzzing of clippers and the droning of SportsCenter highlights.
Farrington throws plenty of barber shop talk at Edwards, who tosses it right back. Farrington said barbering at Midway is like working for a second father.
“What’s he gonna say to me today?” Farrington said, of working a shift with Edwards. “What’s he gonna get on me about today?”
“Finishing your interview and cutting somebody’s hair would be a start, big time,” Edwards said in response. He was cleaning up a customer’s neckline and didn’t even look up at Farrington.
On a day-to-day basis, sweeping up hair and cleaning the sink top Edwards’ to-do list. Farrington jokes that his coping mechanism is simple: “I drink a lot of alcohol.”
If Edwards and Farrington aren’t at Midway, they’re probably at Bowbarr next door, where Farrington takes two Modelos and a shot.
Every week, “C” Farrington’s cousin, John Farrington, 58, comes to Midway to get touched up and chat. John Farrington, a born and bred Tar Heel in a Carolina blue flat brim baseball hat, met Edwards in the Boy Scouts. They played football against each other in middle school – Farrington at Culbreth, Edwards at Phillips – and Farrington came up going to Midway.
The late Stephen Edwards cut Farrington’s hair until he sold Midway to his son, who practiced barbering on Farrington and their friends over the years. While Step Edwards worked temporarily in real estate after his father passed away, his sister handled Farrington’s hair. Farrington estimates an Edwards family barber has cut his hair “tens of thousands” of times. While Farrington exaggerates, he has gotten a haircut at Midway at least once a week for more than 30 years.
If Edwards is unavailable, Farrington says he’ll wait until his friend is ready. Going somewhere else isn’t even a question. Heading to Midway is like heading home.
“You always meet good people here at the barber shop. It’s like a family thing, Midway especially,” Farrington said.
“Chapel Hill is a small city, so you know a lot of the people in town. Sometimes coming here is just a time to see them.”
Chapel Hill, of course, isn’t the same city as when Midway opened. Then, the town’s population hovered below 10,000, less than the number of graduate students currently enrolled at UNC.
Edwards says the growth of the town and university have reshaped Midway’s clientele – they seat more students now, and more outside the African-American community – but that Midway has welcomed the demographic shift.
“For me, the biggest change is change, so it doesn’t bother me,” Edwards said.
“Nothing stays the same. If you’re not moving, you’re sitting still, and the worst thing to happen to any town is to be stagnant.”
Midway hasn’t stalled in half a century. Their regulars still frequent the shop for haircuts and smack-talk, but bringing in new customers welcomes differing ideas, which Edwards encourages. This dialogue – this barber shop talk – is the lifeblood of Midway.
“We want our customers to participate in conversation, because that’s how you learn people,” Edwards said. “Everybody has an opinion. An opinion is worth something here, and nobody gets into arguments because it’s just your opinion.”
“C” Farrington is no exception. While Edwards says great haircuts and customer interactions distinguish Midway as an extraordinary shop, Farrington put the Chapel Hill-Carrboro barbering scene in simple terms.
“Godfather,” Farrington said. “Without Midway, wouldn’t be any other shops around here. It’s the Godfather of barber shops.”
Edwards wasn’t sure about the description.
“I don’t know if I want that on the record either, Lord,” Edwards said.
While Midway is the oldest African-American barber shop in Chapel Hill, there’s a lookalike in most towns. Edwards’ barber shop is part of a national culture – one that pairs haircuts with relationships formed between family and friends at a casual meeting point. There’s not another Midway, but “black barber shop” culture extends and thrives beyond Chapel Hill, a rejection of chain cosmeticians like Sport Clips.
“Some people go to those big brand name places, but they always come back,” Edwards said. “With a bad haircut. We do touch-ups for people all the time.”
And while every customer – new, returning or regular – that sits down with Edwards gets the “Midway experience,” weekly customers form the shop’s heart, soul and bottom line.
Edwards says his father once pulled him aside when a well-known Carolina athlete skipped a line of weekly patrons at the barber’s invitation. Stephen Edwards said this wasn’t right, a lesson his son still carries with him. It’s the reason Midway doesn’t display pictures of the famous Tar Heels – Danny Green and Chuck Stone, to name a couple – that have called Midway their barber.
“Weekly customers are what keep the barber shop open for the ones that come once every three months or once a year,” Edwards said. “They put food on my table and clothes on my back.”
Serving the community “is in Step’s blood,” said Lovelia Edwards, 90, matriarch of Midway. Edwards’ mother was a beautician who sold her car and walked to work so her husband could buy the Midway lot. Lovelia Edwards says her husband, who was posthumously inducted into the Chapel Hill-Carrboro Chamber of Commerce Hall of Fame in 2015, invested everything in his barber shop and the people it housed.
“Stephen served this community his entire life. He gave his soul to this store,” Lovelia Edwards said. “Midway was like a second home, where we spent time and raised our family. It’s a blessing to see Step carry the shop forward.”
Like a second home, indeed. Visiting Midway was a formative experience for the Farrington family and many others in Chapel Hill and Carrboro’s African-American community, but none were immersed like Edwards, his brother, and his sister, all of whom have worked at Midway.
Today, Step Edwards is the sole family member still barbering on Rosemary Street.
Midway, Edwards says, is where he works and sometimes where he sleeps. At Midway, he chats with lifelong friends about personal frustrations and global issues alike. If he meets a new friend, Edwards says, they probably started talking in the barber’s chair.
For that reason, “Midway Barber Shop,” as a name, doesn’t quite do Edwards’ business justice.
The word “shop” is a vast understatement.
“Midway is my home. I slept in the back through my divorce,” Edwards said.
“I’ve spent more man hours in this one spot than any place in the world. I mean, this is my home.”