“I get asked at least once a week when I’m going to get married.” Robert Watkins is a 22-year-old bachelor in a land where that age is long past marriage prime. He studied art and photography at nearby Francis Marion University, “until I realized I did not want to photograph weddings and children, which is how a photographer makes his living around here.”
Robert discovered a passion for barbering, quit school, apprenticed at a local Black bar shop, were he now has his own chair. “The barber shop is the community center for black men. They get their hair cut every week. It’s all about crisp lines at the edges.” Black hair is very different from white hair, but Robert likes the challenge of cutting both types. Now that he is full time and developing a following, he does more and more white guys. “White guys don’t get their hair cut as often, but they make appointments. Black guys just show up.” Robert’s formal appointments cut back on his walk-ins.
Robert’s interest in men’s hair has expanded to grooming products. He makes moustache wax and lip balm that he sells from his house. Vacations are often trips to visit other barbers who help him expand his skills. “I just got back from Portland, Oregon where I studied with a barber I admire. I fit in so well, everyone thought I was from there. It was cool, but odd. I like it here, where it’s easy to stand out.”
Florence is an aging railroad town whose location as a transportation hub – now the intersection of I-95 and I-20 – helps keep it lively. He lives in a vintage bungalow in a shady part of old town with a housemate, Gordon. The place is sparse, the living room has two couches and a giant flag; a drum set fills the dining room.
The real living happens on the front porch. “There’ll be a few people on the porch when we get home.” Robert casually said as we drove home from dinner at a downtown pub. Turns out many locals know about ‘Third Shift Thursday’. A steady flow of people aged 20 to 40 showed up until well past midnight. “What do I love about Florence? The people. I can visit Portland, but I could never leave here.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“I watched a TED talk recently about machine learning and what jobs robots will take. I think a lot about technology and how that will define our day to day. Machines draw conclusions from relatable data. But they can’t make correlations of non-related data. Man can do that.
“I cut a lot of children’s hair in the shop. You have to put a screen in front of them to get them to sit still. They can’t settle themselves. What will that mean? They get all this input, they are accustomed to constant input. But what will they put back out?”