Sonny’s Hair Salon is the last landmark on Kentucky Avenue in what was the heart of Atlantic City’s African-American business district.
The shop opened on the street in 1938 as Grace’s Beauty and Barber Shop, by the owner of the Little Belmont Bar, then down the street across from the Club Harlem.
Sonny Lea, of the Venice Park section of Atlantic City, has had it since 1969, taking it over when the owners retired.
“This block was it at one time, and I’m the last original business in this block,” he said.
Lea has probably done as much for the community as for the appearance of men in his 43 years — helping others find a career, working with neighborhood youngsters, providing a community forum.
“I like to see people get started. A guy one day was counting the people I helped get started,” he said. “It’s a good trade.”
Lea said he was planning a van trip with local kids to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
“A lot of kids are running buck wild and I try to stay in touch with them, do things with them,” he said, in keeping with his belief that if you treat people right, they’ll treat you right.
Lea said some of his customers have been coming for 35 years. “I cut generations of hair.”
That makes Sonny’s Hair Salon a place to talk about what’s going on in the community. When it turns to issues and politics, he stays neutral.
“They talk but I’m out of it,” he said. “I try to distance myself from it as much as I can.”
More often, talk is about sports and far more energetic.
“Sometimes you can’t hear yourself think in here. Oh my God, they’ll be, whew! Loud!” he said. “But they understand there’s not going to be no fights.”
Lea’s sense of order and responsibility were honed in the U.S. Air Force, where he was a jet mechanic. He is thrilled that two planes he worked on — B-52s and KC-135 tankers — are still in use today.
“Uncle Sam taught me how to be on time. He didn’t take any excuses. I’m like that now. I don’t like excuses,” he said. “You do it or you don’t do it.”
Lea has a full-time and a part-time barber working for him, as well as two young women working in the beauty parlor.
He said he would retire today if he could find someone to run the shop the way he wants. Then he’d have more time for traveling, which he loves. “I might go to Atlanta or Cleveland for a game. I would love to do that,” he said.
Lea’s children have chosen other fields, so they won’t take up the scissors as he did from his father — without any training.
“This kid asked me one day if I’d cut his hair. He said, ‘Just do something, I don’t have any money,’” he said. “I said, OK, I’ll meet you a little later on, and I thought I’d just get away from him. But a couple of hours later, there he was waiting. My father gave me the clippers and just left me,” Lea said. “I cut his hair and the kid went back and showed everyone what I did. That’s how I started.”
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