People often remember Walter “Tommy” Thomas’ barbershop for its décor. Football helmets representing local high schools and colleges in the ACC and SEC fill shelves high above the barber’s chairs. Bright red Coca-Cola signs and dozens of commemorative Coke bottles cover just about every available inch of the walls.
Yet regular patrons of the shop say there’s more to the place than its clutter and classic barbershop look and feel. The place has become a Buckhead institution during the 56 years it’s operated at the same spot at 1268 West Paces Ferry Road.
Getting haircuts at Thomas’ place becomes a family tradition for some Buckhead boys. Men who got trims when they were young keep coming back and bring along their sons and their grandsons. Politicians stop by to get spruced up while they do a little campaigning. Football coaches appear for pre-game trims. Businessmen visit to catch up on neighborhood news while getting a haircut or shoeshine.
“My daddy built a heck of a barber shop,” said Walter “Tommy” Thomas, who, after his father Gilmer Thomas, is the second generation of barbers nicknamed “Tommy” to own and run the place. “I’m just riding his coattails.”
But Thomas’ fans say Thomas does more than cut hair and talk about football at the shop his dad opened in 1959.
This month, the Foundation for Mitochondrial Medicine is honoring Thomas, his wife Linda, and their son Jason and daughter-in-law Charlotte for their support of the organization. The family was to take center stage during the organization’s annual Hope Flies Catch the Cure benefit, held at the Buckhead Theatre.
“We’re honoring the Thomas family because of the impact they’ve had on mitochondrial awareness, for using Thomas Barber Shop to get the word out,” said Morgan Smith, operations manager for the foundation.
The foundation describes mitochondrial disease as “an energy-production problem that primarily affects muscular and neurological systems” by reducing the energy available for the body. There are no treatments available, the foundation says. The Centers for Disease Control says one in 2,500 people are affected by the disease, Smith said.
Thomas says he also uses his place at the shop to help raise money for other causes, including efforts to fight cancer and heart disease. “I never say ‘no,’” he said. “I’ll do what I can … The more money we can raise, the more we can help.”
Thomas said he knew nothing about mitochondrial disease until his son, Jason, developed it about five years ago. Jason had planned to go to work at the barbershop with this dad. “I thought he’d be the third generation,” Walter Thomas said. Instead, Jason Thomas, who’s now 41 years old, was disabled by the disease, his dad said.
“When he gets up, he looks like he’s run a marathon,” Walter Thomas said. “He just burns out after an hour or so. Right now, if you look at him, you’d think he looks great. But he’s just drained.”
Thomas started telling his customers about the disease to let people know about it and to raise money to fight it. “Since we got involved, I want all my customers to be aware,” he said. “When you’ve got some skin in the game… I’m sitting in the middle of Buckhead. I know I can raise money to find something to help not only my son, but the children in wheelchairs. If I don’t get off my butt and do something, maybe nobody else will.”
Thomas started working in his dad’s barbershop in 1970. And although his son won’t be moving into the business, he’s got a couple of grandkids, aged 10 and 11, who say they want to work at the shop, he said. They have time to move in. Although he’s worked at the shop for 45 years now, he says he doesn’t intend to even think about retiring until he logs at least 50 years at the shop. “I’ll be here for the next 10 years,” he said.
Family is important in his shop, Thomas said. “The barbershop, it’s family,” he said. “We treat everybody like family. … It’s kind of like Mayberry R.F.D. We’ve get three, four generations coming in here. That’s family. People come here because they know they can talk about anything you want to.”
Smith, who works with Thomas now through the mitochondrial foundation, says her dad got his haircuts at the shop. “My father has gone here 50 years,” she said. “I bring my 2-year-old son here. My dad brought his son in here for his first haircut.”
One recent Friday morning, Bud Burruss, who’s 25, took a seat in Thomas’ chair for a haircut. “I’ve cut his hair since he was in diapers,” Thomas joked.
Burruss said he used to time his trips home from college in south Georgia around his haircuts. That way, he could be sure to get them at Thomas’ place. “Tommy’s the man,” he said. “He’s a good guy – very hard working and he supports the community.”
Besides, he said, he likes Thomas’ barbershop. “These kinds of places are really hard to find in a big city like this,” Burruss said.