Hackett School of Barbering: Cutting hair, changing lives

At one time, Gary Hackett may have been one of Swainsboro’s best-kept secrets—but he isn’t any more, and the world is a better place because of it. The now 48-year-old barber has traveled the world cutting hair, met celebrities in the process, got in touch with his calling, and is shaping lives just as much as he is taping lines.

He first picked up a set of clippers when he was about 11-years-old. His four older brothers were notorious for messing up their hair with those old clippers, but perfectionist Gary couldn’t bring himself to do that to himself. Instead, he took his time and gave himself a good-looking cut. Pretty soon, his brothers wanted him to cut their hair, too. Then came his brother’s friends. Then his brother’s friends’ friends. Hackett says that trend continued until he had a bus full of people coming home to line up and wait their turn for one of his cuts. In that way, barbering stole his childhood, but the trade has made up for those lost times on the playground and activities with his buddies. Today, barbering is a full-on passion that has given him countless unique opportunities, including getting to pass the tricks of the trade and keys to success to others.

Once Hackett’s mother, Mamie Roberson, realized her son’s talent, she and his grandmother, Inez Fletcher, made sure he tapped his potential and moved forward with barbering. They were both extremely hard on him. As soon as Hackett graduated from Swainsboro High School in 1990, he enrolled at Swainsboro Technical College, a decision he jokingly says was made by both himself and his mom. During his studies, he worked at Beauty World under Thomas Bird. In 1992, Hackett graduated with a master cosmetology degree, which allowed him to open his first shop in Swainsboro.

That shop, Early Birds, was located on New Street. Hackett quickly made a positive name for himself by working extremely long hours to suit every customer’s needs. He would continue that practice for the next several decades, and that work ethic instilled in him by his mother and grandmother would ultimately be what set him up for the mounds of success he would later find.

“When I worked under Mr. TJ at Beauty World, he opened his shop later in the day. I knew early on if I ever got my own place, I’d open earlier. That’s where the name ‘Early Birds’ came from,” Hackett explained. “I started opening at 4:00 in the morning. Then I started coming in at 2:00 in the morning, then midnight. I just wanted to make sure I got all my clients taken care of, no matter what. I stayed there for about three years.”

Over the next several years, Hackett’s career took him to many different locations—some local, some not. He outgrew the space provided by Early Birds and eventually moved to a brick building on Moring Street in front of The Forest-Blade. He remodeled that building, putting approximately $21,000 in it to make it shine. His business was growing, and he was more inspired than ever. Hence, Hackett dubbed the new building, thusly his business name as well, to Inspirations. He stayed in that spot for two years, continuing to build his following.

Next, his father built a barber shop onto Hackett’s home on Industrial Way. He cut hair out of his house for about six years until 2006. Frustrated by a lack of privacy and unannounced—but well-intended—customers, Hackett resolved to moving back to Moring Street, this time in a building just a little further west than the building directly in front of the newspaper. Hackett spent less than a year there before he got the opportunity of a lifetime, thanks to a friend named Kevin Samples.

“I used to go to Orlando to visit Kevin. I met a guy through him named Reggie Jones, who was a wonderful barber, a celebrity barber. The first day Reggie met me, when he found out I was a barber, he asked if I wanted to come to Orlando. God works in mysterious ways! I told him no because I had put a lot of money in my shop here. Things transpired, though, and I went back and forth to Orlando anyway.”

In Hackett’s words, God then stepped in and “called him to change his life.” He accepted a position with Reggie working at Supermen Fades to Fro’s in Eatonville, Florida just outside Orlando.

“I was like a fish out of water! I felt like a goldfish put in an ocean who had to learn his way,” Hackett said. “While I was there, I was a new barber. I didn’t have a lot of clients, and I had to learn how to associate with people. I had to go out and meet people, pass out cards. Because of my relationship with people, I grew really fast.”

Part of that quick growth saw Hackett being introduced to celebrities like Dwight Howard, Chris Paul, Derek Favors, and Canton Jones. Meanwhile, Reggie observed Hackett’s knack for barbering and how well he handled the business side of things, so he gave him more responsibilities at the shop. Reggie eventually asked Hackett to be partner in a second venture, a new shop in Winter Park, Florida called Supermen Fades to Fro’s, now called West & Kennedy.

Hackett worked in Eatonville from 2007 to 2009, and he took on the new gig in Winter Park from 2009 to 2011. In 2011, Samples, Dwight Howard’s friend and business manager, texted Hackett and asked him to come to Los Angeles since the basketball star had just been traded from the Magic to the Lakers. The Swainsboro native agreed to a weekend trip, but he departed that initial trip with an invitation to return the following weekend. Hackett agreed, and at the conclusion of that second weekend in L.A., Howard asked him to come on board as a barber, pastor, and friend.

“I stayed out there in L.A. for about a year. I taught devotions and pretty much served in a pastor/mentor capacity,” Hackett said. “I taught Bible every morning, cut their hair, encouraged them… Whatever they needed, I was there for them.”

In 2012, he decided it was time to come home. His family was living in Orlando while he was in L.A. Although he was allowed to fly to and from home at leisure, the family man was pained over and over again seeing his kids grow up rapidly in his absence. Living in the air was taking a toll on him, and he had a specific vision in mind for what he could accomplish back in an environment with a slower pace and a deeper meaning.

“I always loved the learning side of this trade. I worked in Wrightsville at the youth detention center there in 1997 for about 10 months, and I also worked at the YDC here in Emanuel for about 10 months. In those roles, I was a barber instructor. It came so easily, teaching people how to do what I do. I found so much joy in educating people about how to brush their hair properly, which oil sheens and chemicals to use, which kind of picks work best. Through the years, I got better at my trade, especially as I continued my education and got more work experience… But I felt most at home, most accomplished, when I could pass my knowledge on.”

With that in mind, Hackett and his family moved back to Swainsboro. In 2014, he set out to purchase the building he’s in today on West Main Street. Hackett looked to his family, clientele, and community to help him actualize his dream, and per usual, everyone banded together and made it happen. Hackett lacked the funds right off the bat, but his sister suggested a donut sale. The sale went over extremely well, but it didn’t fulfill the financial requirement such a project would require. His friend, Alex Daniels, suggested a plate sale, which also went over extremely well. Between those two types of fundraisers, lots of prayer and faith, and oodles of encouragement, Hackett had himself a building.

Over the next two years, 2015 and 2016, he completed a crossover program with a barbering school in Macon to achieve both his master barber’s license and his master barber instructor’s license—all so he could open his own barber school here.

Of course, he had to walk before he could run. He renovated the new business location completely, once again to the credit of his hard-working, supportive circle of family and friends. Once the work was completed, the upstairs of Inspirations, as it was called back then, would be where he would continue to give his infamous haircuts, but the downstairs part of the building would serve as a place for area kids to come and be mentored under the umbrella of an unfortunately now-dissolved community outreach program called One Unity Youth Center.

Hackett, being the man of service and selflessness he is, carried over into his West Main shop the same culture he had established everywhere else he went, one where adults and kids alike could feel safe, at home, uplifted, and inspired. Swainsboro’s best barber kept working long hours, all the while working behind the scenes to check off the various other hoops that came along with opening a certified barber school. His hard work finally paid off in January 2020 when he welcomed his first cohort of students to Hackett’s School of Barbering.

“There’s a phase you have to go through just to establish yourself as a school. It has been a lot of hard work, but it has been so worth it.”

Today, just a few days past the school’s one-year anniversary, Hackett has 22 students whose ages range from 18 to 47. Six of those students are local while others travel from Millen, Statesboro, Soperton, Louisville, and Wadley to be educated by one of the best in the business. In order to graduate and receive their diploma, these gentlemen must complete 1,500 hours and finish their studies with passing grades. Should everything stay according to schedule, Hackett’s School of Barbering will see its first four graduates in March. Most of his students, Hackett says, plan to open their own shops as well, which has been his own personal goal from the time he first envisioned his school—empowering the next generation of entrepreneurs as opposed to simply educating the next group of barbers.

“I went through a time when I really hated cutting hair. In 2009, I went through a depressed period. I didn’t want to cut hair any more. I felt like God was calling me away from it to help me, but I realized God was just showing me I had some things I needed to get right in my heart. Once I did that, everything started happening, and I had the motivation to do more and more and more!” Hackett said with a smile. “It makes my heart smile to be in the position I’m in. It drives me more to help people. We have a lot of barbers in this town, always have, but I’m the only barber in town with a license. I knew there was a problem, and you can either remain part of the problem or become part of the solution. I do it for me, but I really do it for others.”

To everyone who has helped him along the way, especially his wife, Shiwandica Hackett, his son, Immanuel Hackett, his daughter, Genesis Hackett, the many customers who’ve been with him through thick and thin, and the community who has been supportive in various ways, Hackett extends his sincerest thanks.

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart. You guys have been on my side for the last 30 years. I’m not working as much now as I was back I’ll continue to do that. I’m not going anywhere because this is more than hair-cutting to me… It’s always been about raising the bar, and now it’s about keeping that bar raised to make everyone proud, make a difference, and help everybody look their best in the process!”

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