Lawrence Tolliver wasn’t ready to say goodbye, but circumstances were beyond his control and the moment was downright cruel.
The South Los Angeles building that housed Tolliver’s barbershop was being sold, and the new owner had different plans for the space. In early December, the same month that a documentary about his legendary store was to be released, Tolliver found out that he would have to move before Christmas.
“Let’s move on to the next one,” he said one day, trying to stay positive. He told me that he had read a column of mine in which the late Norman Lear said that life is a series of transitions from what ended to what is next.
But Tolliver, approaching 80, wasn’t sure what was next and was suffering. At one point, while he was putting away his belongings, he was too nervous to even talk about it.
“It’s hard enough to go through this,” he said.
Tolliver has been a barber for more than half a century in three locations, the last 12 years on the south side of Florence Avenue near Western, where the walls were covered with images of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Muhammad. Ali and the Obamas, among other Tolliver heroes.
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He was always excellent with scissors, whatever the generational change in style, and his regular customers included women. Children followed their parents and grandparents into the store and into adulthood.
But that was only half the story.
By the strength of his personality and the breadth of his humanity, Tolliver built a gathering place for people who came over the decades, whether or not they needed a haircut. They came to talk, to listen, to laugh and to learn.
Lawrence Tolliver has been master of ceremonies, chief psychologist, traffic cop and conductor in a hallowed hall where people talked about history and honor, glory and grievances, Watts, Rodney King, drug epidemics and crime, the rise of Obama and the relentless scourge of racism.
His store has been a place where children were in the company of role models, including doctors, lawyers, police officers, ministers, teachers, directors, engineers, merchants and workers. And Tolliver lent his support to community causes, promoting public and mental health initiatives, supporting youth sports and giving free haircuts to homeless people.
“This is a safe space,” Karen Bass said during an October 2022 visit as a candidate for mayor of Los Angeles, joining a long line of politicians and public officials who have gone through the workshop to listen and be heard. “It’s where people come to exchange opinions and they can do it in the comfort of their community. And people learn while having these discussions.”
I got my hair cut just before Christmas, when the walls were already half bare. Tolliver gave me a Miles Davis poster as a souvenir, knowing I’m a jazz guy, and it broke my heart to see the dismantling of the store where I had been welcomed, educated, and entertained: the store where I met Lawrence. wife, Bernadette, and much of the family.
My first visit was in 2001, when the store was across the street on the north side of Florence. I was curious after watching a mayoral debate where a young man in the audience told me he liked Antonio Villaraigosa, but the elders at his barbershop told him he owed Jim Hahn a vote because County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, Jim’s father , was seen as a man. that he cared and fulfilled the black community.
What I got that day was a lively debate about the election, and I kept coming back for more. Tolliver and the gang weren’t always willing to break a sweat to solve the world’s riddles and injustices. Sometimes the store was a place to take a break from it all or watch Tolliver wow everyone with his dance moves. Sometimes it was a place for idle chat about the rhythms of life, sports, music and love.
But they got to work, no doubt, in theatrical barbershop style, with high-volume, scathing takes on the issues of the day, often from the left, but certainly not always.
I watched Tolliver criticize police brutality but defend law enforcement. One of his three sons became a Los Angeles police officer and a succession of police chiefs visited the store. Among them was current Chief Michel Moore, who apologized in 2020 to a room full of Tolliver’s regulars for equating the criminal acts of protesters in Los Angeles with the actions of the Minneapolis police who murdered George Floyd.
Many years ago, Sandra Evers-Manly —A friend of the Tolliver family, president of the Black Hollywood Resource and Education Center and cousin of slain civil rights activist Megar Evers, began working on a documentary about the LTs.
Evers-Manly and I went to Pittsburg High School in the Bay Area, although I’m much older and didn’t meet her until she took on the Tolliver project. It was not an easy film to make, because the the pandemic hampered developmentand Evers-Manly lives on both coasts and splits her time between California and the D.C. area, where she retired after a long career as a Northrop Grumman executive.
But she had seen firsthand the magic of LT’s barbershop and Evers-Manly wanted to capture it for the world to see. So it kept going, and on December 29, at the Director’s Guild of America Theater on Sunset Boulevard, more than 400 people (many of them Tolliver’s clients) attended the red carpet premiere of “Tolliver’s Barbershop,” which beautifully captures the spirit of an establishment that will be deeply missed.
By then, Tolliver had made peace with the unfortunate juxtaposition of a film promoting an institution that had just closed its doors. He told the audience that some of the film’s characters had died, but that the documentary would keep memories of him alive. Evers-Manly is planning an East Coast run and hopes to break into festivals and distribution channels.
In rationalizing the closure of his store, Tolliver reminded me he had gone back to working part-time and only cut hair for a core group of clients and friends. So now there will be a little more cutting, she said, and she is still considering when, where and how to do it before the holidays.
“He’s a man of his community,” the Rev. James McKnight of the Christian Fellowship Congregational Church in Harvard Heights says in the film. “If I had the opportunity to go to the suburbs or the Valley or wherever, and there was a great financial opportunity, I think I would say, ‘Hey, no, man, this is where I am, and this is where I’ll be until I die.’ ….’”
Although he was born in Alabama, Tolliver says His roots are in Los Angeles and he still believes in the community he calls home.
“Most of the people in this neighborhood are hard-working, God-fearing, law-abiding residents,” he says, adding that he wants to be remembered as someone who “tried to love someone.” “I tried to do my best to encourage people.”
A few days after the premiere, I asked Tolliver how he was doing.
He texted me one of his favorite songs.
“I’m not dead. My shoulders hold a good head. Life hasn’t completely disappeared. Then I’ll cut my hair. Somewhere, somehow.”