Saltwater Portrait

Ray Clifton hangs up clippers after 42 years

Customers stunned by news of retirement
Barber Ray Clifton, cutting Tim Buckmaster's hair, is retiring after more than four decades of lowering men’s ears. At 5 p.m., on Friday, Sept. 27, Clifton and longtime coworker Ralph Holston, who is also retiring, will close the Center Barbershop’s doors for the last time. BY HENRY J. EVANS JR.
September 24, 2013

The door at Ray Clifton’s Center Barber Shop in Midway gets a regular workout from loyal customers who for years have been coming to a barbershop Clifton owned.

“It’s kinda like a library in here today,” he said, noticing there was no ongoing barbershop conversation, only the low sound of a TV playing a football game no one was watching. The quiet was about to change.

Much to the surprise of many longtime customers, Friday, Sept. 27, will be Ray’s last day greeting customers, draping them and asking, “How do you want it?” as a comb is dragged through soon to be shorter, neater hairs.

“Retiring! When?” asks Sam Merritt Burke, a few minutes before Ray drapes him.

“Friday, Sept. 27,” Ray tells him, with an easy smile and a little laughter in his answer.

“What am I going to do?” Burke asks seriously, but Ray doesn’t answer, instead he asks Burke what he wants done with his beard.

“Just do my neck,” Burke tells him. “Make me look pretty.”

Burke, an attorney and a former Delaware state prosecutor, is now raising goats. He’s been coming to Ray since 1980.  He also brought his four sons in for their cuts when they were kids.

“We used to sit on that bench out front. So, you’re going to retire, Ray,” Burke said, still in shock about the news.

Ray, 63, grew up in a Milton barbershop owned and operated by his father Chester Clifton. Although he watched his dad cut, he didn’t try doing it until he was a student at then-Sussex Vocational Technical High School near Georgetown.

Richard Lewis, his high school barbering instructor, was a great guy and a skilled barber, Ray said.

“He liked doing a lot of work with scissors.” Ray, too, does a lot of scissors-work.

Ray met Ralph Holston in 1965 in barber class at Sussex vo-tech. “We were both licensed in ’68 and we’ve worked together since then,” he said. Ralph is also hanging up his clippers.

Ray bought his first shop at 7 Rehoboth Ave.  in 1971, where he cut for two years. He’s had the Midway shop for 35 years.

In the ‘70s the shop charged a $1.25 for a cut; now it’s $15.

Watching him handle tools of his profession – clippers, scissors, comb, mirror – one sees how more than nearly four decades of practice result in subconscious, orchestrated movements.

When finished using his clippers, Clifton passes them behind his back, and hangs them on a hook with barely a glance.

“I wasn’t even aware I was doing that,” he said, after the move was pointed out. Cutting a customer a few moments later, he again does the pass behind.

“I just did it,” he said, realizing he isn’t conscious of the move.

A customer says he comes to Ray because he likes his crew cut. “My daughter’s getting married Saturday,” the man tells Ray. “Well, they won’t be looking at you,” Ray said.

News of Clifton’s retirement also comes as a surprise to Robin Chambers, another longtime customer waiting for Clifton’s tonsorial touch.

Chambers is a partner with Broyhill & Chambers Inc., a Lewes-based independent insurance agency.

“Just leave the brown hair,” Chambers tells him, knowing that among his mostly gray hairs he has few brown hairs.

A man no one appears to know walks into the shop. “I hear you’re retiring. How old are your chairs?” the man asks.

“I don’t know for sure,” Clifton said, setting down his scissors and comb, taking a couple steps and lifting the seat cushion of the chair next to him.

“That’s OK, that’s OK. You don’t have to check,” the man says. Ray tells him he thinks the chairs were manufactured in the 1950s.

“What are you going to do with them?” the man asks. “I’m going to put them in storage. Are you a barber?” Clifton asks.

“No, I just like the equipment. I have three chairs. What are you gonna do with the pole?” the man asks, about the traditional, lighted red, white and blue pole topped with a revolving orb mounted outside beside the door.

“I’m keeping it, Ray tells him. The man wishes Ray good luck in his retirement, then leaves.

In the corner next to Ray’s station there’s equipment that has nothing to do with hair. There’s a surf rod and reel, a few golf irons and a paddle for a standup paddleboard.

Customer Tim Buckmaster walks through the door about a half-hour before closing.

“It is cold out on that beach,” says Buckmaster, a Rehoboth Beach lifeguard as he pulls off his hoodie and taking seat.

Buckmaster, a former Beacon Middle School principal, retired in 2011 after serving as Cape Henlopen School District’s director of human resources. In that position he worked with Ray’s wife Lynda, in the district’s administrative office.“How is she? She’s a wonderful, wonderful woman,” Buckmaster said, praising her and her work ethic.

Ray said she’s fine and would retire in about three years. “Do you have any retirement plans?” Buckmaster asks. Nothing firm, Ray tells him. “I’d like to go to Key West. We like it there.” His golf clubs, fishing rod and paddle are ready to roll – sans clippers. “I’ve been very fortunate, very fortunate,” Ray says.

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