Melville’s 4th Avenue has had its share of the hustle and bustle of shops opening and closing, but the barbershop and the man who owns it tell a different story. The barbershop is a marvel that has seen the changes of the Melville landscape but has remained as it is, where it is, for 48 years.

WALKING ALONG 4th Avenue in Melville, a car races past me, whizzing into the oblivion that thrives in the city life. On the side of the road, a car washer smothers a red Fiat in soap bubbles as the sun dries the soapy water away before he can wipe it down. Across the road I notice a small shop in between a framer and a Lebanese restaurant.

TIMELESS: Fred Moss is Melville’s friendly face
and owner of the Scala hair salon. 

Scissors are cut into the shop’s gate and the old rustic feel of the windows and signage tell me that the shop has been in existence for a while. Peering through the words written on the window, I spot an older man in a white coat. His hands working precisely to get that perfect cut for the grey-haired man sitting in his chair.

The Melville barbershop, Scala, has been in existence for 48 years and is one of the oldest existing shops in the Melville area. The hair salon was originally part of the Scala corner, an establishment at the corner of 4th Avenue and 7th Street Melville, which included a bakery, supermarket and bioscope. The barbershop was passed down from father to son. Little did the young 17-year-old know that the shop would exist for a lifetime and that he would become part of the tapestry of the Melville suburb.

Entering the small shop, I am met with a welcoming smile. The man in the white coat introduces himself as Fred Moss. His wrinkled, red-faced facial features tell tales of a long-winded road; a journey of where he is now. His calloused fingers seem rough with years of experience and his piercing blue eyes peer into the soul of every person who walks through the salon’s doors.

“I hated working here,” Fred tells me one afternoon. For Fred, becoming a barber was not his first dream, he had wanted to become a sign writer as he loved drawing. Unfortunately, Fred doesn’t have much time to draw today as he did back in the day.

The 65-year-old didn’t have it easy when he was younger. At 17, he was forced by his father to leave school and work in the barbershop. At the time, the shop was owned by Fred’s father, George Moss, and Fred’s brother-in-law, Piet Wessels. He spent his days cleaning up the shop.

In 1970, Fred joined the army for three months. That was when he realised that “In for a penny, in for a pound” (meaning, if you’re going to do something you should see it through till the end and put your all into it) and reconciled himself with being in the business.

During the time, he had no choice as the army was an obligation for every white man, once they had turned 18 in South Africa. At the time, under apartheid, Melville was a white suburb. Fred’s brother-in-law had left the business and Fred’s father had told him that he had to either take over the business or the barbershop would close. In 1971, Fred took out a loan and bought the business for R900, an investment that he is reaping the rewards of today. 

After Fred took over the business, he became a master at cutting hair and completed his apprenticeship, in a year. He also found it hard to fulfil his obligations in relation to the 10-year contract with the army. In 1974, he managed to amend his contract with the army so that he was commissioned to cut hair and became known as the army barber.

VINTAGE: These red chairs line one side of Fred’s shop. He bought them at a bargain price from the army and believes that they give his shop an authentic barber feel. 

The carved chairs that line the left side of his store are a relic from his army days. Fred grins as he tells me, “I stole them legally.” When the army was getting rid of the chairs, Fred asked whether he could buy them for R150 each. The general at the time refused his request at first, believing that the chairs were worth way more than that, but Fred didn’t back down and eventually got the chairs for what he believes was a ‘steal’. “Even if someone came today and offered me R20 000 for each chair, I would not sell them, they are part of me and the barbershop,” Fred says.

Asked about what made him fall in love with the job eventually, Fred says that the people with whom he interacted made him realise his passion. “I haven’t actually got customers, I have friends. They all share very personal things with me. Sometimes I feel like I am a psychologist rather than a barber,” Fred chuckles.

George and Piet had to take out surety for Fred in case he encountered any debt while running the business.

“There have been ups and downs in the business and some months are more difficult than others,” Fred says.

When times get tough, customers cut down on luxuries, says Fred. A haircut is one of those luxuries, but Fred says that his customers tell him that things are a bit tight for the month, so they will return the following month.

Surprisingly, Fred has never spent a cent on an advertisement. All his clients have come from word of mouth because of how well-known he has become in the Melville community. He says that over the past few years, he has been privileged to gain traction from being featured on the popular South African television show, 7de Laan. Scala is also often hired out for companies and brands to shoot their advertisements in, and from there people want to come and see the famous Scala barber.

In the 1970s monthly rental for the barbershop was R45. Today Fred pays R10 000, which Fred says has come under the economic pressures of the times. But he says that it is fair considering that the price for a haircut has also gone up. Fred used to charge 35c for an adult’s haircut in the 1970s. Today he charges R100.

FAMILIAR: Fred sits on the steps leading into his shop as he observes the bustle of 4th Avenue.
Despite his age, he has no plans to retire anytime soon, saying that he has put his whole life into the business.

The 65-year-old talks about how he has adapted to what goes on around him, but has never changed the salon. For Fred, he wanted to keep the authenticity of the barbershop and never felt the need to change the decor in or outside the shop.

“Never mind, I’ll find someone like you…”, singer Adele whispers in the background as I look around the barbershop. Where the ceiling meets the walls, are hanging caps – blue, red, green, South African. Three old-fashioned barber chairs are lined up on one side of the shop, while on the right-hand side are the old, magical, red chairs.

They look as if when you sit on them, they would transform into time machines, shooting you back to a time when hippies were a whole generation. Nothing has changed inside the salon. But looking out on 7th Street, a Chevy Camaro bounces down the street with Michael Jackson’s “The way you make me feel, you really turn me on…” blasting from its speakers.

STREETWISE: If you visit Melville, you are sure to spot James, who is the only car guard on 4th Avenue. He and Fred have a family-like relationship and James is grateful for Fred’s presence in the neighbourhood. 

I approached the car washer after I had seen him enter Fred’s shop multiple times. James Mokhalinyane seems a lot younger than his 33 years. The red bucket-cap that has swallowed his face hides his big eyes and eerie smile. His hands tell tales of a hard worker, finding whatever jobs he can to survive, on a tar that has adopted him as part of the road signs.

James has been hustling on 7th Street for more than 20 years and has a bond with Fred that one can only describe as being part of the family. “To me, [Fred] is like my father. When he has some jobs at his shop, when I need some money or even when the police come and try to chase me away, he negotiates my stay with them,” a grateful James says.

James says that since he started working in the area there has been a lot of shift and change. “Before it used to be good, now it’s too much clubs and crime,” he says.

Even while the suburb is over-run by students roaming the street, if one stops and listens closely enough, one can hear the hum of the wind or the buzz of sunshine on a hot summer’s day. It is hard to believe that crime has grimly seeped its way into the suburb, destroying the atmosphere that once was.

James invites me to sit on the side of the hot pavement as he tells me about how the businesses that have opened in Melville now don’t know what the people want, and that is why some of them are failing miserably.

“Fred is different,” he says as he allows me the privilege of a grin, “He has his regular customers and he knows what people want. He hasn’t changed a lot over the years and he isn’t like other barbers where you must make an appointment. You can just walk into Fred’s shop at any time and the man is happy to help.”

VIDEO: Fred has been cutting hair for most of his life and says that one has to be an artist in order to cut someone’s hair. Fred has cut hair for four generations of men and will continue to do so until he cannot anymore. He shares some of his tips and techniques he has learnt over the years.

A tall, grey man enters the salon, and greets Fred like an old friend. Taking a seat on one of the shop’s barber chairs, he begins to engage with Fred over the troubles that have recently taken over his life. Fred’s hands work precisely, cutting stray strands and neatening up the fellow’s hair as he listens with intent and offers sound advice.

Brahm Spies, a 70-year-old lawyer, needs no invitation for introductions. “Fred is part of the furniture. He has been cutting my hair for 40 years, back when it was all black,” the gentleman throws his head back as he lets out a roar of laughter.

Brahm is moving to Cape Town in December and is distraught that he might have to change barbers. “I might just fly back to get my hair cut once a month,” Spies says. 

A bare-footed older man, Japie Le Roux, pads his way into the shop when he decides to take a seat next to me. He yaps on about how he has known Fred for 48-years and has only ever cut his hair in the comfort of the Scala hair salon.

“I have never had any complaints about Fred, but I would suggest that you don’t believe a word that comes out of his mouth,” he and Fred chuckle as they share an inside joke.

For Natasha Hunter, another customer, until five years ago, Melville had been her whole life. St Swithins Avenue is the street that Natasha used to live with her family.

Natasha says that she loved growing up in Melville. “When I was 12 or so, I remember one year for Mardi Gras, that we camped out in Fred’s shop watching the festivities,” she says.

Now 33 years old, Natasha says she was little when her father started taking her to Scala to get her hair cut. As a little girl Natasha was not keen on cutting her hair but with Fred being the barber everything was always a little bit more humorous. “I was so upset, that he then took the hair and put it on my head and said, ‘See, it will stick and grow back,” Natasha recounts the fiasco that took place that first day at Scala.

SNIP, SNIP: Fred attends to a regular customer, Mauritz Cloete. Although Mauritz has only been coming to Scala for two years, he says that Fred has the best expertise of the barbers in the area. He adds that Fred’s prices are good, which keeps him coming back. 

Although she has not visited the area for five years, Natasha says it would be disappointing to come to Melville and not see Fred or the barbershop. Hers is a testimony to Fred’s friendliness that has kept Scala going for the 48-years that he has run the business.

According to Natasha, Fred has managed to stay in the area for so long because, “He gets to know his customers on a personal basis, his friendly way with people, and the fact that through thick and thin, he has stuck it out.”

FEATURED IMAGE: Fred Moss is Melville’s friendly face and owner of the Scala hair salon. Photo: Naeemah Dudan.