Featured photo: Professional shear sharpener Jack Wilks (left) poses next to one of his biggest clients, Alexander, of Alexander’s Salon in North Little Rock
As a professional standup comic for 26 years, running with some of the most inventive and outlandish comedians in the business – including Little Rock’s own late great legend, Bill Hicks – Jack Wilks has driven countless miles in the dead of night between shows on America’s highways, in addition to having five national TV performances. Wilks was Hicks’ best friend and roommate during some wild years in Houston, where he and other no-holds-barred “outlaw comics” partied with the notorious comic Sam Kinison.
But when his daughter’s mother, Marylyn, became severely ill 12 years ago and his daughter Nikki needed his presence in her life, Wilks left his nomadic lifestyle behind and came home to Little Rock. Wondering what to do next, he stumbled across a truly unique and surprisingly lucrative career as a shear and blade sharpener for salons and grooming shops all over Arkansas, a career that combines his love of canine sidekick, Molley, with his free-spirit, zen-like lifestyle under the name, “Shears for Years.”
“The last 12 years of my standup career were taking me around the world, headlining cruise ships,” Wilks recalled, while working his magic at the Bella salon in Sherwood. “I tried selling cars for four years, and a customer named Bill Fleming noticed that I hated it. He came to The Joint [comedy club] and saw me perform, telling me after that he wanted to talk about something.” Bill was looking for a protege to learn a very unique, skilled profession, and to take care of his customers after he was gone.
“He was a decades-long shear sharpener, and he figured I’d be able to do all the things in addition to the act of sharpening, that the skills of a standup comic would enable,” Wilks added. “It’s like a joke: You have to put things in a concise way and educate – about how sharp, precise tools make their job faster, easier, smarter and healthier, and I even built a 31-foot trimaran sailboat under the Little Rock-North Little Rock bridge in my twenties, so I liked working with my hands. Bill and I bought the newest, best machines in the business.”
Fleming wanted Wilks to succeed, so he gave him no clients and forced Wilks to drive all over Arkansas to build his own contacts. Every day for a solid year, Wilks called Bill and his wife, Judy, and told them the events of his day. One day, Judy called Wilks and asked him to cover for Bill at Alexander’s Salon, the top salon in the state. Wilks agreed, not knowing at the time that Bill was sick. While he was there, Bill died. Since then, Alexander’s is sentimental to Wilks.
“There’s literally thousands of problems to solve, since every shear is different,” Wilks said. “Time and experience is what it’s all about. Solving all those problems is what makes you a real sharpener.
“One of Bill’s traits was always innovating, always improving. I know he would be proud of what I did with his mentorship,” he added. “I started buying parts from all over the world to make the shears pretty, and that took off like crazy.”
Wilks also started his own line of shears called Jax Shears. He receives parts from as far away as Pakistan, through a manufacturer named Muhammed Zubair, and regularly consults with the acknowledged best sharpener in the country, Josh Freund, of Chicago. Freund has been an invaluable counselor for Wilks, teaching him the intangibles of the business.
Freund told Wilks what he wished he had known 15 years earlier: He needed to be good at clipper blades as well, leading Wilks to the Kansas City-based national expert, James Hammonds. Wilks proudly noted that this trio is considered the best in their trades.
In keeping with the laid-back lifestyle he had as a comic, Wilks lives by a “no expectations” mantra in his life, as he trusts that God will provide him all the clients he needs. Rather than keeping a rigid calendar, he just checks in with clients in-person through intuition, keeping with his zen philosophy. He also lets the calls that come in guide his day, as he provides his numerous services, including sharpening surgical tools for veterinarians.
One other aspect that makes Wilks unique is that he takes his dog, Molley, everywhere – at his wife’s suggestion – warming the hearts of clients and their customers alike. In the early days , Molley was his entire PR department. He bought a Prius, which now has 200,000 miles, and Molley has been by his side for every mile.
“I don’t have a day that’s the same, or even 10 minutes that are alike – and I love it,” Wilks concluded. “I will always thank Bill Fleming for the freedom he gave me in this trade. I’m a free spirit, and I don’t like routine. This is wonderful for a guy like me. Most importantly, [I bid] my utmost gratitude to all my fun, fabulous and amazing friends I’ve met in the business.”
To contact Jack Wilks, call (501) 259-9273.