Meet Doug Walker, a barber, mentor, and the recently retired owner of Sharp Cuts Above, a North Philly barbershop.

• On the name: “I was going to call it the Jesus Saves Barbershop, but a couple barbers told me it might scare people away so I went with Sharp Cuts Above.”

• Profanity prohibited: “We had a curse box. I’d say, ‘Y’all want to pay for that? It’ll cost you a dollar.’ Eventually, I didn’t even have to tell men not to curse; other clients or barbers would tell them not to.”

After 20 years of styling hair at his corner barbershop in North Philly, Doug Walker tried to fade quietly into retirement last month.

But North Philly wasn’t about to let him go out like that.

The man known as “Uncle Doug” to so many deserved to know that the difference he tried to make, in the end, made more than a difference. For those in the community, his Sharp Cuts Above barbershop was “a sanctuary,” “a lighthouse,” and “a refuge.”

And so as Walker, 67, styled his last few haircuts during the final days at his shop on the corner of 26th Street and Cecil B. Moore Avenue, he was surprised by a cavalcade of clients, friends, and family, including his son from North Carolina, who came in to share stories, show love, and let Walker know that he shaped more than hair at his shop, he shaped lives.

“This barbershop has been a lighthouse in the community,” said Vernon Robinson, 65, of North Philly. “You can feel it, the conversations that people come in here and receive and the advice that he gives, it’s been a refuge for people in need.”

G. Lamar Stewart Sr., senior pastor at Taylor Memorial Baptist Church and chief of community engagement at the District Attorney’s Office, began coming to Walker’s shop when he was 19. Now 37, Stewart said he’s brought people training in antiviolence work in to meet Walker, who never called himself an activist or organizer, “but who has been doing the work and living that life.”

“This was a place where young men who didn’t have fathers, or who didn’t have fathers playing an active role or who weren’t on the right path, could come and be connected to mentors and men like Uncle Doug,” Stewart said. “He would give them wisdom as to his own story of incarceration. When we talk about credible messengers, Uncle Doug embodies everything about that term.”

Before we get into Walker’s story, there’s one more thing you should know about his business — he called it a “Christian barbershop,” but men of all faiths were welcomed. On the store’s awning was a Bible verse, Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me,” and the few decorations inside included a plaque with the Ten Commandments, a canvas print of another Bible verse (James 1:17), and a laminated sheet of paper taped to the wall that read: “NO PROFANITY PLEASE.”

“With me being in the Lord, I had to be different. He put me in an area where I sold drugs, where I was incarcerated for drugs,” Walker said. “That’s why I came up with the idea that I had to have a shop totally different than any others. I said ‘Lord, please give me a chance and I’ll try to give back.’ ”

Born in Gastonia, N.C., Walker traveled back and forth between staying with his father there and visiting his mother who moved to Philly. He eventually settled here in the 1980s and became involved with drugs. In 1986, Walker said he “was called to my faith because I was doing so much wrong.”

Three months after accepting Christ into his life, Walker was arrested and spent the next seven years in prison. Rather than falter his newfound faith, Walker’s incarceration only solidified it.

He declined to discuss the details of his case, though he has, at times, shared that story in the sacred space of his barbershop with those who need to hear it most.

Curtis Crosland, 60, who was exonerated last year by the District Attorney’s Conviction Integrity Unit after serving 34 years in prison on a bogus murder charge, met Walker in the late ‘80s when they were both incarcerated at the former Holmesburg Prison.

Crosland overheard Walker’s gospel group rehearsing and belted out a few notes of the musical rendition of Psalm 34, which they were singing, “I will bless the Lord at all times.” Walker put a microphone in Crosland’s hand and told him he was in the group.

“I said, ‘C’mon oldheads — I don’t want to,’ but he said, ‘No man, we need you,’ and we’ve been the best of friends ever since,” Crosland said.

When Crosland was exonerated last year and a celebration broke out on his block, Walker drove up singing “I will bless the Lord at all times!” And in the months since, the men often harmonized together at Walker’s barbershop, with other customers joining in on songs ranging from “I Saw the Lord” to “My Girl.”

“This is a Christian barbershop, but don’t get it twisted, we have fun,” Walker said. “This is a singing barbershop. We all come in here and try to harmonize.”

Upon his release in 1993, Walker, a born-again Christian, attended Tri-City Barber School and worked at several shops before opening Sharp Cuts Above in 2002, with the intent of bringing his faith into his work.

“I liken his barber chair to being his pulpit and this shop is like his sanctuary,” Stewart, the pastor, said. “He created a space where, whether you were Christian or Muslim, no matter your faith perspective, you could come here and find hope, find wisdom, and young men could find fatherhood.”

Along with hosting a Bible study at his shop, Walker also held noon prayers, kept prayer books on his counter, gave away turkeys at Thanksgiving, handed out toys at Christmas, blasted gospel music into the street, and gave roses out on Mother’s Day. His barbershop also hosted chess games, had a baseball team, and there was once even a small children’s library on site.

State Rep. Donna Bullock, who surprised Walker at his shop with an honorary citation for service and leadership from the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, said Walker was a “cornerstone for this community.”

“This was a community center in a commercial corridor that needed that,” she said.

But above all of his accomplishments, Walker is perhaps most proud of the more than 15 young men he hired and trained at his barbershop, some of whom went on to open their own shops, like Gordon Edwards.

“He spent a lot of quality time with me, something that I always needed that I didn’t know I needed.” Edwards, 47, said. “He’s kind, caring, stern, and he was a father to a lot of men. You knew if you was doing something wrong, he was going to get you.”

Crosland said it brought him “great comfort” while he was still incarcerated to learn his youngest son met Walker by chance and he offered him a job.

“It was good to know that he was with one of my friends that I knew was living right, that was on the right path, and had turned his whole situation around and became a pillar in the community,” Crosland said.

Walker planned to wait until he was 70 to retire, but a hip operation and back problems have made the physicality of his job harder. And when one of his barbers who’d been with him for 10 years died of COVID-19, it put life into perspective for him.

“When he passed, it took a lot from me,” Walker said. “I’m not dying in a barbershop, I’m going to enjoy my life.”

Walker has already sold the building, which is slated to become a grocery store and coffee shop, and he and his wife of 20 years, Sheila, plan to travel to Africa and Israel in their retirement. While closing his beloved barbershop wasn’t easy, Walker takes comfort in knowing he fulfilled that promise to God he made all those years ago — to give back.

“You can’t save everybody, but we at least had some guys who wanted to change but didn’t have men around who could show them you can come from a bad place in life and turn around and do good,” Walker said.

In the last days at Sharp Cuts Above, as laughter, songs, and stories echoed through the barbershop, Crosland quietly stood back, smiling with pride at his friend.

“He always gave men what God gave him in his heart,” Crosland said. “That’s Doug Walker, he’s all of the good things that a man should do.”

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