Central peninsula barbers carry on a dying tradition

"Shear" excitement

Posted: Sunday, March 26, 2000

"They're the last bastion of manliness," said a committed barbershop customer from Soldotna.

It's where little boys go with their daddies to lose soft baby-haired curls. Where customers sitting draped in capes and those waiting their turns carry on slow, easy conversations about hunting and fishing. Where the exchange of a look and the nod of a head seems enough to elicit a knowing smile, no words having been said.

Around the barbershop walls typically hang framed photos of fishing trips. The glassy gaze of caribou and other game, brought back to life by skilled taxidermists, stare silently from the walls, reminding customers of successful hunts. Model cars sparkle in the reflected light of overhead fluorescent tubes.

Far away, seemingly on another planet, are comparisons of shampoos and conditioners. Absent are comments about manicures and make-up. Lacking are flashy glamour photos of smiling models with a variety of hairstyles.

Aunt Bee: You know, that place has become an institution. It's been the center of the town's activities for years.

Opie: Say, Pa, when I get older, can I loaf around the barbershop, too?

Andy: Well, I wouldn't call it loafing, Opie.

Opie: Gee, Pa. You don't do anything there. You just sit around and play checkers and talk and grunt.

--Andy Griffith Show

The barbershop is a no-nonsense world of haircuts, shaves, beards, mustaches and men.

At its center stands the barber.

R.D. (Raymond Darrill) Smith, owner of R.D.'s Barber Shop in Kenai, remembered exactly what it was that made him decide to become a barber.

"When I was 18 years old, I was laying brick," said Smith with a soft Texas drawl. "And it was hot. I stopped by my uncle's barbershop and it was nice and cool. Right then and there I decided I wanted to be a barber."

That was back in 1961.


Barber R.D. Smith and James Cissell share an afternoon at Smith's shop in Kenai recently.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Smith enrolled in an Austin, Texas, barber college. The program lasted six months and cost $50 a month to attend.

He's been cutting hair ever since, including the 17 years since his arrival in Kenai.

In all that time, styles have come and gone. The popular flat-top he learned to cut while in college has given way to newer styles, like the surfer or bowl cut.

"Hippies almost chased barbershops out of business," Smith said, referring to longer, untrimmed hair that translated to fewer customers.

Between Smith and his part-time employee, Huel Waddell, they cut a lot of kids' but no women's hair.

"It's been a good career," said Smith. When his oldest son, Raymond Patrick, was having trouble in school, Smith saw barbering as an answer.

"I jerked him out (of school) and put him in barber college," Smith said. "It worked."

Today, Smith's son is a barber in the Anchorage area.

When Smith first started his career, Mondays were considered a barber's holiday.

"Not any more," said Smith, explaining there are two reasons for the extended work week. "It's partly because of malls. (Their hours) forced shops to stay open on Mondays. And it's partly because of greed."

But Smith keeps Sundays for himself.

"Sunday's for going to church," he said.

"I'm just strictly an old barber," said Smith, adding that the most challenging part of being a barber is trying to please everyone. In spite of that, he enjoys what he does.

"I don't look forward to retiring. I'm having too much fun."

"You call this fun?" snickered George Peterson, one of Smith's clients, who had been sitting quietly in a shop chair, listening to Smith.

Smith looked over at Peterson and chuckled. Their laughter dusted the room with a warm familiarity and companionship.

The familiar pole

The barber pole outside R.D.'s shop speaks of barbering's colorful history. A history dating back to medieval times, when there were basically three categories of medical professions: physicians, surgeons and barbers. Beyond the services Smith offers in his Kenai shop, barbers in the Middle Ages also performed surgery, tooth extractions and bloodletting.

One explanation of the pole is that is symbolizes the profession of bloodletting. The barber needed a staff for the patient to grasp so veins on the arm stood out, basin to hold leeches and catch blood and a supply of linen bandages. When the operation was complete, bandages were hung on a staff, sometimes placed outside as advertisement. Twirling in the wind, they formed a spiraled red and white pattern. The public display of bandages was eventually replaced by a painted pole and the leech basin transformed into the ball at the end of the pole.

Another similar explanation describes the red as symbolizing blood, blue symbolizing veins and white symbolic of bandages.

In 1540, an act by Henry VIII dissolved the union of barbers and surgeons, stating, "No person using any shaving or barbery in London shall occupy any surgery, letting of blood or other matter, except only drawing of teeth."

Be assured, Smith's barber pole is strictly traditional. Barber qualifications are regulated by the Alaska Division of Occupational Licensing. Surgery, tooth extractions and bloodletting are services not included in the license Smith has on his shop wall.

"Although tastes and fashions change from year to year, the basic job of barbers and cosmetologists has remained the same -- helping people to look their best," said the Bureau of Labor Statistics' U.S. Occupational Outlook Handbook, which also reports that in 1996 there were 59,000 barbers in the United States.

Down the street

Just down the street from R.D.'s shop is the Kenai Mall Barber Shop, which has occupied the same spot since the mall opened in 1969.

"I've been cutting hair for 20 years," said Rick Langley, a New Orleans native who came to the Kenai area seven years ago and has owned the shop for the past year. "It makes me a living."

Former shop owner Don Reynolds works with Langley.

Reynolds, who owned the shop for seven years, trained at the former Anchorage Barber College.

Both Langley and Reynolds agree that little kids are the toughest customers.

"The youngest kid I've cut hair on was 18-months old," said Langley. "That kid had some hair!"

Their biggest challenge comes from trying to stay with the trends. To learn new styles, both men report they "just look at the style and figure it out."

Some of the toughest cuts customers have requested include Mohawks and undercuts, not to mention clients wanting lightening bolt designs.

Reynolds likes the flexibility being a barber offers.

"I can do this anywhere in the world," he said. "Right now I have my house up for sale and plan to head to Israel for a couple of years when it sells."

Langley's plans, on the other hand, are to stick around.

"This is the first shop I've owned. It's keeping me out of the weather," he said. "I'm here for a while."

That's good news to customer Jack Keck.

"I've been coming here for 30 years," Keck said. "Why change now?"

While Langley quickly clipped at Mike Thrapp's hair, Thrapp said he first started going to the shop 10 to 15 years ago.

"My sisters used to cut my hair, but they moved out of state. I came here, liked the cut and have been coming back ever since."

Norm Story of Homer walked into the shop, removed his coat and sat down in Reynold's chair.

"I've been stopping in here for the past 10 years," said Story. "It's a pleasure to come to a barbershop."

Outside the shop's door, the barber pole quietly spins around. When asked if they do any bloodletting, Langley and Reynolds smile.

"Not if you sit real still," is the response, bringing chuckles from both barbers and their customers.

The Barber Shop

Over at Soldotna's Peninsula Center Mall is what's simply named the "Barber Shop."

The shop opened when the mall was built in the 1980s. Ralph Persinger bought the shop last year.

Like Reynolds, Persinger was trained at the former Anchorage Barber College in 1987. Like Smith, Persinger has family members that are barbers. He also owns Dimond Barber Shop in Anchorage.

Jim Lovell is a permanent fixture at the Barber Shop, having worked there since it opened.

"I've been cutting hair for over 30 years," said Lovell. "I've liked barbershops from the first time I went in one when I was a little kid."

Persinger and Lovell say they have some really good customers.

Although the shop is busy, talk is sparse.

One of the customers, with silver hair that came down over his collar, sat quietly waiting his turn.

"John cuts hair good," he answered when asked why he was there. "I come here twice a year, whether I need to or not."

The shop breaks into brief, muffled laughter.

When Persinger was asked about the financial consequences of clients who only come around twice a year, his silver-haired customer provided the answer.

"I make up for it with really big tips," he said.

Tips weigh heavily in the lives of barbers. According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, "Barbers and cosmetologists receive income either from commissions or wages and tips."

The Highland Web Magazine reports other ways barbers of old added to their income. Apparently during the 1500s, James IV was so fond of whisky that barbers and surgeons "of Edinburgh were given the right to make and sell Aqua Vitae, or Usqua. Whiskey in Gaelic means the 'water of life.' The proper Gaelic name for the drink is Uisgebeatha, which itself is often shortened to Usqua or Uskuy."

A cut above

Although the details of barbershops may have changed through history, much remains the same. Mark Twain captured that unchanging atmosphere in an article he wrote August 1871 for The Galaxy, a leading American magazine at the time.

"All things change except barbers, the ways of barbers, and the surroundings of barbers," Twain wrote. "These never change. What one experiences in a barber shop the first time he enters one, is what he always experiences in barber shops afterward till the end of his days."

Smith, Langley, Reynolds, Persinger and Lovell have seen trends come and go. But it is still a world where customers can expect the expected. Little boys lose their downy locks and men's hair turns gray. Like Aunt Bee said, barbershops remain an institution in the center of a changing world.

And that keeps customers coming back for 10, 20, 30 years.

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