Wills' shop a cut above

Celestine Wills has owned and operated a barber shop in Refugio since 1965. (Photo by Felicia Wills)

Times have certainly changed in Refugio in the last 55 plus years. Most businesses that were open then are just fond memories today.

One notable exception is Celestine’s Barber Shop located on Power Street.

The shop has been owned and operated by Refugio native, Celestine Wills, the only daughter born to Murry and Edna Wills, in the same location since 1965.

That makes Wills the owner of the oldest Black-owned business in Refugio.

She was born and raised in Refugio, along with her five brothers.

Wills was a 1961 graduate of Refugio High School where she participated in basketball, softball and tennis.

After graduating from high school, Wills received her barber training at Tyler Barber College in Dallas.

When asked why she decided to be a barber rather than a hairdresser she replied, “I loved the idea of cutting hair and it was quicker to cut men’s hair than women’s.”

Prior to opening her own shop, Wills worked at Holt’s Barber Shop in Corpus Christi for a while.

She made the decision to go into business for herself for three main reasons: a barber was needed in Refugio, it was home and she did not like the daily commute to Corpus Christi.

Opening her shop in Refugio also gave Wills the opportunity to offer her services to the people in the surrounding communities.

She has never thought about operating a business anywhere but Refugio.

The barber is affectionately called “Stine” by family, friends and customers.

In addition to Refugio, Wills has customers of all ethnicities from Woodsboro, Sinton, Taft, Rockport, Aransas Pass, Corpus Christi, Kingsville, Beeville, San Antonio, Houston, Port Lavaca, Bloomington, Victoria, Goliad and Cuero.

Many of them include several generations of the same families.

The barber recalls that when she first got into the business the price of a haircut was $1.25. 

The going rate for a shave was seventy-five cents with an edge-up being fifty cents.

While those prices are a thing of the past, the service that Wills provides has remained a constant.

Wills’ customers do not have to make appointments. She operates on a first come, first served basis. Payment is made by cash and some checks.

Every customer who has arrived by 6 p.m. will get their turn if they are willing to wait.

And they always are. Wills is known to have stayed in her shop as late as 9 p.m. many times to accommodate her customers. Satisfactory service is one of the main factors that Wills feels has kept her in business for so long. 

Long time customer the Rev. Frank Harvey, of Victoria, said that he was impressed with Wills’ skills and work ethic when he first met her nearly 40 years ago.

He quickly added that he would have been a customer sooner if he could have gotten to her.

Harvey said that he admired her work before he knew her name.

He repeatedly asked a deacon at his church where he was getting those sharp haircuts.

The reply was always, “I can’t tell you.”

Harvey kept on in his quest, and another minister gave him the answer he wanted. And the rest is history.

Harvey still remembers the first time he came to “Celestine’s,” as the shop is locally known.

He saw her do seven haircuts in about an hour and a half. He said, “that’s just how well she knows the needs of her customers.”

He went on to describe her as top-notch and consistent in her craft.

Prior to meeting Wills, Harvey said he never would have dreamed that he would let a woman cut his hair. But, she won him over. 

The Rev. Charles McKnight, of Rockport, was living in Victoria when he first met Wills.

McKnight rode over with a friend who had come to get a haircut. 

He then began making the journey himself. McKnight stated that he has not had a haircut since February. “I’m waiting for Celestine,” he said.

The minister said that no one else can cut his hair to his satisfaction. He has even brought his grandson to the Refugio shop.

McKnight described Wills as good people and says that he just likes the atmosphere of her shop.

“She takes pride in her work, and looks out for ministers. 

“She does not want her customers to look just any kind of way,” he said.

McKnight said that he keeps Wills in his prayers.

Lastly he stated, “Yes, she is my barber, but before that, she is my friend.”

Wills traditionally gives a child his first haircut at no charge. Sometimes she has to stop and patiently wait while the young customer is crying, but she always finishes the job.

Wills expressed that it feels great to be the owner of the oldest Black-owned business in Refugio. As she humbly stated, “Just another way of making an honest living.”

She considers being able to get her sons, Tony and Cedric, through college and living to help her grandchildren as some of her proudest moments.

She said that she is most thankful for God’s grace and mercy. She is also thankful that she was able to see another year with good health and strength.

Wills credits her parents with being the biggest influences in her life. 

“They taught me survival and how to make a life for myself, not to be depending on others,” she said.

The shop is not open now due to the pandemic. The only other times it has been closed for an extended period of time was when Wills had surgery in 2011 and after Hurricane Harvey.

A frequent question that Wills is asked is, “Do you plan to re-open once the pandemic is over?”

Wills said, “Yes.”

She said that she has been asked that question too many times to count and is still receiving daily calls. 

•bmartin@mysoutex.com•

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