Gillespie’s Barber Shop, on 12th Street in Dunbar, was where I received my first haircut. I don’t remember it, of course, but my mom says I cried the whole time, and there was an abundance of “snot and tears.” Sounds about right. I was always a fan of the wild outta control crying jag, until my heart eventually turned black and my ability to feel emotions was cauterized and destroyed.
Anyway, when I was a kid every boy in Dunbar went to Gillespie’s. There were other barber shops in town, but they catered to a more grizzled clientele. Somehow Gillespie’s cornered the market on kids.
Here’s a grainy photo of the place. The barber on the right is Clarence, and the one in the middle is Ernest. That third guy is a mystery to me. The third chair was always a wild card. Usually it wasn’t used at all, and when it was… the dude didn’t stick around long enough to secure a following. Clarence and Ernest were the heart and soul of Gillespie’s. They were like Mick and Keith, or Raymour and Flanigan.
I always received my drastic Eisenhower-era throwback haircuts from Clarence, but my brother was an Ernest man. I don’t know why, but there was never any crossover.
Inside the shop was an ancient Coke machine that served up 8 oz bottles for a dime. Comic books were strewn around, and they were really good ones, too; no bullshit Little Dot, or anything like that. And behind Clarence’s chair — on the counter and mirror — was all sorts of St. Louis Cardinals baseball paraphernalia. He claimed Stan Musial was the best player ever, and loved the Cards. In West Virginia?! It was unheard of, almost exotic.
It was a great place. Old men would hang out in there, and it was always full of laughter and barbershop smells. But by the time I was in my young teen years, people had started abandoning Gillespie’s and going to so-called salons. Everybody had ridiculous Gabe Kaplan hair then, and Clarence and Ernest were set in their ways. You’d come out of there looking like 1957, regardless of what might be happening beyond the four walls of that shop.
And I was genuinely sad about this. I had to give them up too (I mean, seriously), but felt like a traitor of the highest order. It didn’t take long before Gillespie’s closed, and Clarence and Ernest were retired. They were at retirement age, anyway. But I still felt guilty for turning my back on those nice old guys. They were almost like family, and I’d thrown them over for some gum-smacking, cig-voiced hussy at the Hair Hangar, or whatever.
There were other flirtations with betrayal, but those had been my mother’s idea. My hands are clean in the matter.
For a while she had some woman coming to our house, and cutting our hair in the middle of the living room. I think the interloper’s name was Trina, and she had a STRONG southern accent. She said “ice” like “eyes,” or some shit. It gave me the heebie-jeebies (talk right!). My mother always paid her cash, and I think they were engaging in some sort of off-the-grid black market hair styling scheme. I hope the statute of limitations have run out? My mother’s too old for Moundsville prison.
We also visited a so-called barber college in Charleston a couple of times. Ha! I guess Gillespie’s $1.25 cuts were a little too exorbitant? So, my mom drove us downtown and allowed complete strangers to take their mid-term exams on our heads. It was so freaky and weird, my brother and I howled in protest. So, we only went two or three times and she allowed us to return to Gillespie’s.
Since then, it’s been nothing but Super Cuts and places like that. It’s never the same person twice, but they usually do a decent job. It’s not the same, though.
A few years ago I decided to try to recapture the old Gillespie’s magic, and find an honest-to-God barbershop. I went to two, and gave up the search.
The first guy launched into a racist diatribe, about the Mexicans and “coloreds.” WTF? He’d never seen me before in his life, and knew nothing about me. He seemed very angry, and I was worried he might get so whipped-up he’d slit my throat.
The second man was saner, but very old and shaky. He smelled like gasoline, and was using clippers that should’ve been in the Smithsonian. They made a loud clacking sound, and were throwing off a shower of sparks. I thought both of us were about to go up in a ball of fire. It was terrifying.
A few days ago I was eating lunch in a diner near here, and there was an ad on the paper placemat for a “real, old fashioned barbershop,” and I might check it out. But I have a feeling it’s gimmicky, and not genuine. And possibly expensive, too. My expectations are low, but I’m going to see what it’s all about. Eventually.
Do you have a Gillespie’s in your past, or has it been nothing but Fantastic Sam’s? Perhaps you get your hair cut at one of those fancy-pants places, where they serve wine? Or maybe you just do it at home? We’ve toyed with that, with mixed results. Occasionally it’s perfect, but I often feel like my head is asymmetrical, and slightly askew.
If you have anything to share on the EXCITING subject of hair cutting, please do so in the comments section below. If you’ve had luck finding an old-style barbershop near you, please tell us about it. I want to live vicariously through you, until I can find one of my own.
And I’ll see you guys again tomorrow.
Have yourselves a great day!
Now playing in the bunker
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I’ve given up on the whole social experience of haircuts. It’s the clippers, number two and number one guides and a mirror for me. Best part is I can finish the haircut and step right into the shower.
Billy Joel says
I went to the same barbershop for the first 15 years of my life as well, and went to the same barber for most of that time. Then I went for about 10 years just letting my hair grow out from a mohawk, with only occasional back porch trimmings from girlfriends. I tried to find an old fashioned barbershop in the city I currently live in, but to no avail. I just go to Great Clips like everyone else. At least you get a dependably acceptable cut there. Those hipster barbershops with their straight razors and other gimmicky bullshit don’t pan out in my experience. I actually walked out of one without paying earlier this year, because the young woman that cut my hair totally butchered it. The only thing the manager of the place could say to me was: “I think you can pull off that haircut”. Sheesh.
John Smith says
Thanks for stirring up repressed memories. Allentown, PA. Tom’s Barber shop. The dude nicked me in the ears with his electric clippers EVERY time. My mother always accused me of being “dramatic”.
I started shaving what mother nature left about 15 years ago. Mach3 in the shower. Though I don’t pay a barber, there’s always a big tip.
There was a barbershop called “Len’s” on Wilshire Blvd between Lincoln Blvd and 9th in Santa Monica in the 60’s. Great place…they’d give you Bazooka Bubble Gum after your cut. And not the chintzy hollowed out pieces but the real honest-to-goodness full pieces (two for a penny). They also had a stellar collection of Playboys, a key part of my formative years.
Morris/Pike’s barber shop in ‘downtown’ Reading, Ohio.
They too had the 3rd chair that was usually unused except for casual ‘storage’. I probably went there from when I was 8 until I was 23, when Pike finally retired. (Oddly enough, Pike and his wife lived 5 houses or so down the hill from my parents.) My hair could get long at times but I’d always reset it to the ‘zero state’ at Pike’s. (I called it “Morris'” for the longest time, even though Morris [first name escapes me] took off in the mid-70’s.)
My dad cut our hair initially. Evidently he didn’t want to pay for it either or my parents really couldn’t afford it. (There were 7 of us kids living at home at the time.) Last month, when we were cleaning out my Mom & Dad’s house, I found those clippers. I’d already put aside enough junk out of guilt or sentimentality so this one didn’t make the cut. Good pair of clippers too. Probably cost my Dad a pretty penny back in 1968 or thereabouts. My Dad was pretty gruff but he’d always apologize if he “nicked” you. But he didn’t want to hear about how we’d go to school the next day to be surrounded by boys going “Woo Woo Woo Woo” with their palms over their mouths, ‘imitating’ ‘Indians’ making their war cry (because we’d obviously just been scalped).
I sometimes think I grew up in a cartoon.
“didn’t make the cut”. heh. I made a funny.
Thinking back on those haircuts, it’s amazing what you remember from those mundane activities. The TV hanging on the wall with the Wirt Cain 4 o’clock movie always playing. If you were still there when the news came on at 5:30, then it was taking TOO fucking long.
Another thing I remember was the huge mirrors on the wall behind the barber chair and on the opposite wall. When they had you facing a certain way, you could see these infinite reflections of your head and the barber, bouncing back and forth forever between the two mirrors. Cool!
I know exactly what you mean about the mirror reflections. I would always wave my arms up and down and pretend I was part of the Rockettes!
Steve in WV says
I am a 4 on the top, 2 on the bottom. It takes a real beauty school flunky to muck that up, but somehow, it’s happened. Anyway, there’s an old school barber in Milton where all the cops go to get their sheering. I’ve never been.
The last time I went to a “real” barber, they wouldn’t take debit cards. Strictly cash only. Seriously? I’m going to stop by the ATM just to get a damn hair cut? No way, Jose. Take your striped pole and stick it. We live in a society! Christ!
Russo’s barbershop in Athol, MA circa 1962-1970. That’s where we went…me and my two brothers, Dad, and Grandpa. It was right acreoss from the train depot. Russo’s was just like the shop Jeff describes…two barbers, brothers, I think, who came over from Italy after the war. I liked the place because it had a few Playboy magazines buried in with the other bashop fare…Hot Rod, Outdoor Life, Popular Mechanics, True Detective, plus tons of comic books. My little heart would pound out of my chest as I gazed on my first nude women in Playboy, trying not to get caught by my dad or the barbers. The place smelled of Pinaud, Bay Rum, and English Leather. It is still there…run by my old barber’s son, Kent.
Then my mom got the brilliant idea to buy the Home Barbershop kit from Sears Roebuck…and everything went to hell. I remember all of us boys looking like EraserHead after my dad cut our hair with those sheep sheers…..complete white walls on the side with a mountain of curly cotton candy hair left on top…then my friggin mother would try to tame the hair on top with Dippity-Doo (the first hair gel made). I hated those f@^%ing home haircuts.
bean counter says
Alfredo’s in Chicago. Went there once as an adult and felt like I walked back in time. 2 old Italians working the clippers. I kept waiting for Capone to walk out from the back. Cash only. Best haircut I’ve ever had.
I recall a place like that when I was a kid. The old dude used a straight razor on the back of the neck. Scary.
I am not too much into getting my hair cut, but I have only had two people cut my hair in the last 20 years. I only left the first one because he closed. Now, I go to a place that is not far from where I live. So I get to support a neighborhood business – which is good. I am probably the only male that goes in there that does not get a crew cut, or whatever it is called now.
Which is one of the reasons I like going there – the haircut lady does not try to make me have short hair.
I always give her a bunch of money – as I really only go once of twice a year.
No barber for me, but my brother used to go to the Greenbelt barber shop every couple weeks. The best part for me was Mad Magazine. there was always several issues. the lollypops when we left were secondary.
that place closed probably about 35 years ago, but I still have fond memories.
Joe’s barbershop here in Bedford isn’t bad. Old people, cash, gruff. My kind of place. In Cincinnati it was Gil’s in Norwood near everybody’s Records. In St. Louis it was White’s Barbershop. In St. Louis it Was All American (?). All those places were/are awesome.
Growing up it Was Kenny at Devola Barbershop near Marietta, Ohio. Same thing, random chair that we would ride on. Same cut for about 18 ish years. I miss him. He had pilot and flying magazines which I thought were awesome.
Beloved goes to an honest to goodness barber. Come to think of it, I have no idea what the name of th eplace is, but I know he usually gets ut by one of two EYE-tlians – either Bennie or Tony.
Now a point of view form the girls… WHY WHY WHY did our mothers ALWAYS try to spruce up our friggin bangs the night before class pictures??? I have more pictures from grades 1 -8 where it looks like I went to the Stevie Wonder House of Beauty. Goddamn zig zagged lightning bolts across my forehead. And I have curly hair!
Or… here’s another twist of torture. Anyone remember trying to sleep on a headful of pins in what our mothers referred to as “pin curls”. This is when they’d take a bit of wet hair. twist it up and jam a bobby pin 1/2 way through your skull to hold it in place. You were supposed to sleep like that for your hair to dry overnight and the next morning, after suffering through trying to untangle roughly 837 bobby pins from your snarly scalp you were SUPPPOSED to have a head like Shirley Temple. Yeah, another goddamn lie. You’d be lucky if you resembled Harpo Marx.
The bobby pins weren’t too bad. The real torture was those rollers filled with porcupine quills we used in the early to mid- 60’s.
By the time I hit my teenage years and started using those brush rollers, my scalp was as tough as rhinoceros hide; nothing could penetrate that flesh. I remember using some kind of metal clip thing to set my “spit curls” every night. Now, those hurt because they were digging into your tender facial flesh.
Surely you girls remember using Aqua Net hair spray. My “hair do” could survive a tornado; if a big wind came up, you entire head of hair just sorta lifted up, in mass, and then settled back in place afterwards; it was almost like a football helmet. And, of course, there was the Dippity-Doo, the first hair jell on the market. That stuff coated your scalp (combined with the Aqua Net) so bad it looked like you had a terminal case of exzema going on! And that shit didn’t wash out easily. You had to do a double scrub with Prell shampoo. I can’t believe I can actually remember the brand names of these products…it’s like stepping into a time capsule.
My Mother always gave me a home permanent (Toni, of course) the night before class pictures in grade school. My hair would be curled so tight, I couldn’t even shut my damn eyes for days. In addition, there was the lovely smell of the perm that lingered for what seemed like forever! She was also a big fan of those “pin curls”, madz. If you didn’t get that curl really round, you came out with zig-zag, square curls here and there…and that was not cool back in the day.
I can honestly say I don’t remember where I got my haircut. I certainly don’t remember going to a “beauty shop” and having it done, which means my mother probably cut my hair. But you can bet on one thing…she did NOT use her “good scissors” that were used only for cutting fabric to make those lovely dresses I wore to school each day. I can still remember the dress I hated the most…it was white cotton with red polka dots the size of nickels; God, how I hated that dress!
I went to Penguin Academy and had to wear a uniform.
Patty in Cleveland says
My mother did the same thing–no wonder I looked like hell in all those pictures and I have really curly hair so I have no idea what look she was going for. In rebellion I have straightened my hair every day for the past 20 years.
I had several unfortunate home Toni perms, my grandmother would do them in her kitchen. I’d smell like a male cat took a couple of diuretics and then perched on my head to relieve himself. I never did pin curls, but I did have to sleep with the foam rollers, the pink ones.
I go see Sam at the Cambridge Barber Shop.
He’s been cutting my hair for close to 30 years. He also cut my father, brother, and most of my friends and family. Sam even came to my mothers funeral. I’ll start taking my son to see him soon.
Sam is an old school Sicilian. When I started going to him he wore three pie e suits to work. He’d take off the coat and work in his vest and tie. He’s down to a dress shirt and dress pants now, but he’s well into his 70’s so I’m cool with a little informality.
He’s not “connected” as far as I know, but he knows everybody and can facilitate anything you need. New suit? Go see Tony. Real estate? Here’s a guy. Golf clubs? No problem. It’s all above board, but still cool as hell.
Sam no longer takes new customers, you have to be a regular to get a haircut there now. I like the feeling of exclusivity.
He still uses hot shaving cream and a straight razor on your neck and behind your ears. Never been nicked.
There’s always coffee, water, and cookies out front, a basket of candy for kids and playboys in front of the chairs.
The place is the same as it was the first time I walked in, and it’s fantastic.
My wife has asked me what I’m going to do when Sam finally retires. I don’t know, and the thought of not getting my haircuts there fill me with dread. I can’t run around looking like a hippie, but I’m not a salon guy at all.
I found an old 1960’s home barber set in my folks old place. Maybe I’ll just be a DIY’er. How bad could it be?
My hair has always been trimmed at home. I do remember always hating it when it happened, and getting the ribbing at school the next day. Looking back at class photos, hah, those fuckers looked worse than I did.
I also went to through the long hair phase, and eventually long enough to be pony tail length. When the bald spot made an appearance I went radical and out came the hair clippers, no guard-all around, and I do it myself. Easy and quick.
No one has ever been paid for cutting my hair. I get a bit of smug satisfaction out of that fact.
I always went to the cosmetology school in my early 20s. Best pickup place ever. Now I cut my own hair. Got tired of trying to find a place that I liked.
Frey’s barber shop in South Charleston was my regular place as a kid. When I hit the teenage years we started going to a hair stylist. I really didn’t care about how my hair was cut, but really enjoyed the stylist’s shampoo girls rubbing their boobs in my face.
My hair is a hot mess and I don’t care. Down past the bra strap, I cut it twice a year a couple of inches, and it’s chaos in a headbun after that most of the time. I also cut all the head-hair of the fellows at the Tiny House. They have…peculiarities, each of them, and over a number of years I’ve mapped them all out and can make the cowlicks behave. I’m sure they could get a better haircut commercially, but they don’t seem to be interested. Thank God for having a lazy family.
My husband insists on taking my little Secret to an old fashioned barber shop.
I think he’s afraid the kid’s y chromosome will fall off if he gets a decent haircut. Half the time he comes out looking like a tweaker cut it with dull hedge flippers.
hot fuzz says
I used to go to a place called Gary’s… run by a guy called John.
One Saturday, many haircuts ago, the guy two ahead of me was all back and forth with John about hunting fishing hunting fishing
He clears out and the next guy in the chair is back and forth with all football hockey football hockey.
With the next 3 or 4 guys wating I man my way to the chair all ready to “on my cue, unleash testosterone” and get in to a real sausage fest of a discushion about all of the above or trucks crime chicks tools booze camping. I SHOW YOU I AM MAN – HERE IS MY CODPIECE – BASK IN THE GLORY OF ALL THINGS MALE!!!!!!
First words out of John’s mouth, “gee your hair’s really soft, do you use a conditioner?”
So then I started going to see Jacque at Chez Jacques – not sure if related. Jacques stopped using a straight razor on sideburns because of “the gay” and “the aid”… Well he was from a different time, I guess.
I stopped going to Jacques because the guy was just so miserable – he was telling stories where the punchline essentially was “yeah the 8 year old kid that would hang around my trailer up north, yeah I had to tell him to fuck off just to get rid of him”… charming.
I now go to one of the many chains and usually close my eyes (unless she’s really cute – most often not) after telling them what i’m after. I always tip 40% because I think I’m being rude but frankly, I just cant wait until it’s done and I can get the wet around the neck apron off.
I do the buzz cut in the summer – 2 and 4 like everyone else but frankly I’m just not that handsome a man to pull it off all year round. And besides, I have it on good authority that my hair is really soft.
hot fuzz says
Geez, learn to spell moron.
I went to an old-school Sicilian barber shop in childhood, but damn if I can remember the name of the place. It was on Court St. in Brooklyn, probably within a block of 1st Place. They were nice old guys (“old” meaning older than my dad, which equals impossibly ancient to a 6-year-old). I didn’t understand anything they said, because they conversed in Italian. Electric clippers in back, followed by a straight razor on the back of the neck, and never one nick or cut.
The last several times I got my hair cut was at Hair Cuttery or equivalent. That would have been in the early-to-mid 1990s. Since then I’ve entered the Long Hair Phase. I’m sure I’ll grow out of it; I’m only 55. Not sure what I’ll do when the bald spot appears.
Morris’s Barber Shop – Rock Lake Drive Spring Hill WV. I think old man Morris is still around as is his shop.
The straight razor on the back of the neck treatment seemed like a step into manhood for me and my friends, even though it would be years before we would need an actual shave.
For all you bored people out there this fine evening, look up the origin of barber poles. Makes you glad you’re living now not then.
Huzzband has long metal hair (just like Steven Piercy, a la ’80s Ratt, we’re not proud of this) so there are no barbers in our past or future. But, when I was a wee lass, I went to the same place for years and got a pretty standard haircut (70s Dorothy Hamel, my mom didn’t like to “do hair”), now it’s long and straight like a dirty hippie with a gray streak like
Dave Vanian. One does what one can, and sadly it ain’t much.
Buzz in Wheeling says
Jeff, for your general information, The Moundsville Penitentiary has been closed for about 29 years now, They have a new lockup downstate somewhere now.
Anyway, the strangest haircuts I ever got was when I was in the USAF in Southeast Asia. We had a small barbershop right in the squadron area. There were four barbers, all young Chinese females.
Keep in mind that this was during a time when the US and the PRC were not on the best of terms. At all. Added to this was the fact that our squadron, later a group, was engaged in some very black, anti-Chinese operations. So we just assumed they were spies and kept our mouths shut when we visited them.
The big attraction at this particular shop was an *extended* scalp massage that was administered after the haircut. The massage went on for probably five minutes and it was *amazing*.
It was a very relaxing experience and we all speculated about what other skills they might possess. Heh, heh.
My formative years were spent at my uncle’s barbershop. He would give you a standard haircut and straight edge trim in minutes. I would sneak a peek at the Playboy cover while grabbing the newest Mad magazine. After the beginning of a bald spot in my late 20’s I bought an electric clipper and started having the wife cut me at a #3. Thirty years of home haircuts have saved me a ton of money and aggrievation.
Phil Jett says
As a kid, my Dad an ex-marine cut all of our hair, including my younger sister until she was about ten and my mom put a stop to it.
Now days I cut it myself with Dad’s vintage Oster “butch” clippers and a #1 guide comb. I good brushing after and a little “whale” oil and they never fail to get the job done. Every other cut I let the wife clean up my neck with my ‘stashe clippers without a guide.
The Divine Miss E says
When I was 5, my cousin married a woman who had been to “beautician’s school” as it was called then, so she would cut our hair in the kitchen of her trailer, and my mother would pay her in boxes of diapers. (Shotgun wedding.) She also gave me three perms, in the 80s. Then when I was 13, I got all snooty about it and begged my mom to take me to the JCPenney salon for a while. But eventually I went back to my cousin, because I have found over the years that due to my fine hair, there are very few people who know how to layer it in a way that is not going to piss me off the next day. Now I battle that by only getting it cut about once a year.
Sounds like I went to the same barber shop except in my hometown. Two main chairs (John and Merlin) and the Russian roulette third chair. Same haircut no matter what you requested. The best part was that it was n the basement and upstairs was an honest-to-goodness cigar store. Lots of cigars, lots of girly magazines, lots of old guys playing dominos everyday, lots of smoke, and a lunch counter that served incredible cheeseburgers and chili. Most importantly, no women allowed. They could order carryout but they had to pick it up at the back door. Lasted until the late 80s, early 90s. Those were the days, my friends…