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Behind the barber chair for 52 years

By Scott Thoma

Harold Heller cuts the hair of his grandson, Everett, about a month after closing his barber shop in Hector. Harold cut hair for a living for 52 years. Contributed photo

After devoting 52 years of his life to cutting people’s hair, Harold Heller finally hung up his scissors, clippers and comb.

“I just felt it was time,” he said, when asked what prompted his decision. “And with the COVID-19 shutting us down, I just thought that would be a good time to retire.”

Harold’s Barber Shop closed its doors in Hector on March 31 after being open for 24 years. Prior to that Heller owned a barber shop by the same name in Buffalo Lake for 21 years. And he worked in other shops in Minnesota.

When he was in high school in Hector, Heller would talk sports with the local barber, Tom Clancy.

“That’s how I got interested in being a barber,” the personable Heller noted. “We would talk sports a lot. And from talking to him and watching him work, I decided to go to barber school.”

So Heller enrolled in the St. Paul Barbering School in the fall of 1967 and spent the next nine months learning the trade.

“To get into the apprenticeship program, you had to give someone a shave and a haircut, and you also had to take a written test,” said Heller. “Each student would bring a model in to cut their hair and shave them.

“I brought a friend of mine along with me. But on the day of the test, the examiner switched everyone around so you had to cut someone else’s hair than the person you brought in. We had no idea that they were going to do that, but it went fine.”

Heller started out in Clarkfield for his apprenticeship in 1968, but was only employed there for four months because there wasn’t enough work for two barbers.

His next stop was at the Atlantic Hotel Barber Shop in Marshall.

“I went there and asked them if they were looking for an apprentice,” Heller said. “There were two barber chairs there and the man there told me he had been looking for an apprentice for years and years.”

So Heller was told he could have the job. And when Heller inquired what day he should start workin... “Tomorrow,” was the response he got.

After finishing his apprenticeship in 1970, Heller had to return to the St. Paul Barbering School to test for his Masters License. Again he was required to pass a haircut and a shave test, which he did with ease.

From 1970-75, Heller went back to Marshall to work at the Atlantic Hotel for Clarence Fisher.

“I then decided to go off on my own, so I moved back to Hector,” Heller said. “But they still had two barbers in town, so I opened up a barber shop in Buffalo Lake and spent 21 years there before moving my business to Hector when one of the barbers there retired.”

Heller charged only $4 per haircut in those early years.

“I had a few women when I first started, but their styles changed so much over the years and I didn’t want to go back to school to learn how to cut and style them, so I just cut men’s hair after that,” he explained.

Heller revealed that barbers were much busier prior to the 1970s rolling around.

“There wasn’t as much of a need for barbers in the 70s because men were wearing their hair longer,” he laughed. “A lot of barbers quit or had shorter hours. I had to learn to cut longer hair because we mainly gave flat tops before that.”

Heller also had to teach himself to cut lines and lightning bolts in men’s hair in more recent years.

Although he doesn’t recall too many people unhappy with a haircut he gave them, he does recall the first time someone complained.

“I didn’t think it looked bad. but he didn’t like it,” Heller admitted. “My instructor always told me not to expect to go out into the world and try to please everyone.”

As most barbers will attest to, young children are generally the most difficult customers.

“One little boy I had cried the whole time he was in the chair,” Heller said. “He just wouldn’t stop crying. I asked his dad if he had just come from the doctor. The dad admitted they had and wondered how I knew. I said the boy was scared of the barber’s smock I was wearing because he thought I was a doctor about to give him another shot.”

Heller had a remedy for unhappy or nervous boys about to get a haircut.

“I always had a candy jar, so I bribed them a little,” he remarked. “I would tell the kids that if they sat real still while I cut their hair, they could have a piece of candy. They usually sat pretty still then.”

Harold Heller. Contributed photo

Going back in time

Heller’s barber shops were unique in that they did not have a telephone.

“I didn’t want anyone calling while I was cutting someone’s hair,” Heller said with a laugh.

“You can’t get any work done if the phone is ringing all the time. I didn’t believe in appointments either. When I was in Marshall it was all walk-in customers, and I just kept it like that in my barber shops.”

One of Heller’s customers was Blair Folkens, a classmate of his twin sons.

“Walking into (Harold’s) shop was like going back in time,” said Folkens. “All customers were walk-in only. If you were in a hurry you hoped there was no one in the chair, and if you had time to spare, walking in with a few guys in the waiting area was a welcome site.”

Heller always welcomed friendly conversations in his shop.

“Guys would come in all the time just to talk,” he said. “Even if they didn’t need a haircut, they would just come in and sit and talk. I really enjoyed that.”

And there were two subjects that Heller shied away from.

“Politics and religion,” he said. “The others would talk about them, but I stayed out of those conversations.”

Memories abound

You would expect that cutting hair for 52 years would produce a lot of stories. And Heller has enough for a book. He shared a couple of the stories that have stayed with him through the years.

In what almost seems like a barber’s joke, rather than a non-fiction story, a man walked into Harold’s Barber Shop and asked for a haircut.

“He was bald on top and had hair on the sides,” Heller noted. “And he loved to joke around.”

The man then told Heller that he didn’t think it was fair that he had to pay the same price for a haircut as someone with long hair.

“I stopped cutting his hair and said “Do you know how expensive glasses are? I had to buy some glasses so I could find your hair to cut it. So I’d call that even. He really laughed when I told him that.”

Another time a man Heller did not know came in for a haircut.

“He introduced himself to me as I cut his hair,” Heller recalled, “and we talked a little bit.”

A week later, the man came into the barber shop again.

“I thought his hair looked pretty long for it only being a week since I had cut it,” Heller said.

As the man sat in the chair, Heller figured things out.

“I asked him if he had a twin brother,” Heller said. “And sure enough, he said yes.”

When asked what he will miss the most now that his lengthy career has come to an end, Heller needed no time to ponder the thought.

“The people and the conversations we had,” he said quickly. “I met a lot of great people. I am glad I chose that profession.”

And his customers will always know that when they were seated in Harold’s barber chair, they had the best seat in the house.

Harold and his wife, Julie, are currently on a waiting list to move into a “35-plus” facility in Jordan. In the meantime, they are living with their son Brian and his family in New Prague.

The Hellers have another son, Brent (Brian’s twin brother) and a daughter, Tatum; as well as five grandchildren.

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