Remembering ye old barber shop

By David V. Le Vine


For a long time, the American barber shop housed every sort of joke, political and sports discussion. It was our first exposure to the Police Gazette magazine, read by every barber’s customer as he waited to get in the chair. Most notable about the Gazette, it nearly always had a story in it that claimed Hitler was alive and living in Brazil. The gullible among us ate that up to the point of believing.


The American barber shop had a unique appeal to it. It’s where we went to get the latest gossip and local news. You’d come in, say hello to all, hang your coat on the clothes pole or hooks along the wall. Rarely was a radio on, too much to be talked about and listened to without that interruption. And it was always fun to be there when a young mother brought in her young child for his first haircut.


I don’t remember my first trip to the barber shop, but somewhere around five or six years-old, my mom gave me a quarter to walk down to the neighborhood barber on the corner. At the time, we lived in South Minneapolis, when hardly anyone locked doors and kids wandered in and out of their play-mate’s homes.


Barber poles used to be a common sight outside the American barber shop. Stock photo

When I arrived at the barber shop, the place was empty. The barber invited me to climb up the chair to a comfy cushion. He made the mistake of asking me what kind of haircut I wanted. I asked for a “heinie.” Today it is called a crew cut. So, my long blonde locks spilled to the floor. I didn’t care because now I would be like all my playmates who wore heinies.


When I came home I saw my mom was on the phone. She turned, saw me and started to cry. She had not anticipated my new look. Anyway, she took my hand and we walked to the barber shop. Inside she really gave the barber a verbal thrashing, I felt bad for him. It wasn’t his fault. But everyone else liked my new look.


When I was 15 and living in Willmar, Minnesota, I usually got my haircuts from a very debonair Clyde Dawson who had a nice shop in the basement of the prestigious Lakeland Hotel. Clyde had naturally wavy hair, something I had always wanted. He had an excellent business and was busy morning to night.


One time, I was waiting for my turn and saw Smokey Nelson was in the chair. Everyone at Willmar High thought Smokey was a man’s man and some kind of sexy. I didn’t know Smokey and I can guarantee you that he never knew or acknowledged me.


Smokey was 18, and there he was, the school hero, stretched-out flat in the barber chair getting a shave. A shave mind you! When Clyde had finished, Smokey stood up, looked in the mirror, gave an admiring nod, paid with cash and told Clyde to keep the change. How cool. Boy, I couldn’t wait to be 18.


Finally, it was my turn. Clyde motioned for me and I hopped into the chair, skinny frame and all. I said, ‘I want a shave and a haircut.’ Clyde never said a word. He cut my hair and laid me down for the shave. He took the razor to the leather strop to make it nice and sharp. All this happened, while my face was bathed in hot water face cloths to soften the “beard.”

Can you imagine seeing the silent laughs around the barbershop to witness a beardless kid getting a shave?


When he was done, I sat up in the chair. Clyde turned it around to face the mirror. I felt my chin like Smokey did, paid and left. I am convinced that as I climbed the stairs to street level that the guys in the shop were getting their jollies talking about the beardless kid getting a shave. I didn’t care. On that day a 16-year-old became a man for a half-hour.


Side note: Clyde passed long ago. His shop is gone. Next to Clyde was a shoe and leather repair shop, owned and operated by the town’s favorite guy, Oats Gunderson. Today, there are no shops downstairs of the Lakeland Hotel. The building remains, but it is no longer a hotel. Most rooms are rented out for senior citizens.

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