Clay’s Barbershop serves customers on first-come, first-serve basis

Downtown Wilmore is home to one of the oldest continuously running businesses in the town.
Clay Tankersley, who has owned and operated Clay’s Barbershop for 62 years, said he is not the first to have a barbershop at 321 E. Main St. in Wilmore.

“There’s been a barbershop here well over 100 years,” Tankersley said. “I’d say the barbershop is the oldest continuous business in Wilmore.”
On Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Clay’s Barbershop is open from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. and on Saturday from 8 a.m. until around 2 p.m.
Tankersley grew up in Jessamine County and graduated from Wilmore High School in May 1956. The very next month, he enrolled in one of the only two barber schools in the state, both of which were in Louisville.
Tankersley said students back then needed 1,248 hours of schooling to graduate.
“It was supposed to take you six months of putting in eight hours a day to get out of school,” Tankersley said. “But I went 10 hours a day and got out in a little over five months.”
Tankersley graduated barber school on Nov. 1, 1956, and wasted no time in seeking employment.
“The state board inspector lived in Lexington at that time,” Tankersley said. “As soon as I got out of school, that day on Nov. 1, we found out where she lived and went over there that night.”
But the state inspector said the next state board meeting was not going to be held until January. Tankersley asked if he could work despite not being officially certified by the board.
“She said it would be fine,” Tankersley said. “If she had walked into the door and caught me, it would have been a different story. My barber license says I started in 1957, but I actually started on Nov. 2, 1956.”
When he first opened, Tankersley said there were two others working with him in the barbershop to keep up with the demand.
“A lot of times, we wouldn’t get out of here until 10 p.m. on Saturdays,” Tankersley said. “The town would be flooded with people.”
When Tankersley began his career as a barber, he said shaving was a large part of his work.
“When I started here, it wasn’t half of your business, but it was close,” Tankersley said. “Some of the old farmers would go a whole week and come in on Saturday for a shave. Some of them had the toughest beards you could handle.”
But about 10 years ago, Tankersley said the state inspector recommended that barbers not use razors anymore because of the risk of passing on AIDS even though there have been no recorded cases of AIDS contact from a barber.
“Since then, I haven’t done many shaves at all,” Tankersley said. “In some states, it’s a law, but not in Kentucky.”
Although Wilmore has had a barbershop for more than 100 years, Tankersley said barbershops are not what they used to be.
“Barbershops are hard to find now,” Tankersley said. “They’re almost things of the past. This is a man’s barbershop, and I’ve kept it like that over the years. Wilmore is a little out-of-the-way place, but I love it here. I would really miss coming down to the barbershop if I retired.”
Walking into Clay’s Barbershop, patrons are greeted by a row of UK basketballs above the sink. Tankersley said each one was given to him by the late RJ Corman. However, he nearly lost his entire collection around seven years ago.
“I came in the back door on Friday morning and noticed that it had been broken into,” Tankersley said. “I came inside and all the basketballs were gone.”
That night, Tankersley was out for dinner with his wife and ran into a good friend from the Nicholasville Police Department. The officer called Tankersley later that evening and said six of the basketballs were in the pawn shop in Nicholasville.
On Monday morning, Tankersley was cutting RJ Corman’s hair and Corman asked if the sheriff knew.
“As soon as Corman got out of the chair, he called the sheriff,” Tankersley said. “I had them all back by Wednesday morning. All except the very last one that said ‘To Clay from Calipari.’ But Calipari sent me another one.”
Calipari signed the new ball and wrote, “Don’t let them steal this one.”
In addition to his love for UK basketball, Tankersley has invested many hours into the lives of elderly residents at nursing homes across the Bluegrass.
“The old people need haircuts too,” Tankersley said. “It’s sad to say that nobody wants to cut their hair anymore.”
In 1975, Tankersley had a preacher friend in Wilmore who had to move to a nursing home and his wife asked if Tankersley could come and cut her husband’s hair.
“An administrator from the nursing home stopped me and asked if I could come back once a month and cut hair,” Tankersley said. “From there, it snowballed and I picked up aa nursing homes.”
However, Tankersley has scaled back and currently only visits three nursing homes each month.
“I had to give up some of them,” he said. “It just got too much for me.”
Once a month on a Tuesday, Tankersley closes his barbershop for the day and visits Wesley Village in Wilmore to cut hair. Two days later, he visits Lexington Country Place and Cambridge Manor.
Three out of the four weeks each month, Tankersley has Tuesday and Thursday off.
“I have never taken appointments,” Tankersley said. “When people walk in the door and sit down, it’s a first-come, first-serve basis.”
Tankersley said Wilmore is often compared to Mayberry from the Andy Griffith Show.
“A lot of times, people call me Floyd,” Tankersley said. “When we get compared to Mayberry, I take that as a
compliment.”