Tuesday, February 8, 2011

TOM AND GENE'S BARBERSHOP

The little store front on the north end of the strip mall on the major street that runs through south Kansas City is now a quick loan business where they charge high interest rates for small short term loans.  I don't see a lot of business in and out of there these days but twenty five years ago the place was hopping on Saturday mornings.

It was a barbershop.  For those of you who are too young to remember barbershops, it was a place where men gathered to socialize and get their hair cut.  Dad's would bring their son's there for their first haircut and continue to bring their sons with them for years afterward.  The barbershop did not have an official name as far as I can remember.  It was just the barbershop but to all who gave it their business it was called Tom and Genes after the two owners who ran the business.

Tom was a gentle looking man who wore glasses and had a soft voice while Gene was a big burly man with a rough face and a somewhat louder voice.  The two men were experts at small talk and that is what the customers enjoyed most.  Not that Tom and Gene did not give good hair cuts because they did.  They took their time cutting hair so that it came out perfect unlike the chain hair places of today who stick you in a chair snip a bit and send you on your way.

My dad took us to Tom and Gene's approximately every two weeks.  Most of the time you would meet the same group of characters waiting to get haircuts.  That is one thing that was guaranteed.  There would be a wait at the barbershop on a Saturday morning.  Waiting was good though because that was the social time for these men.  The barbershop was a kind of club and everyone knew everybody that was there on Saturday mornings.  Tom and Gene both knew everyone's name and could recall things that had been talked about weeks earlier by the men.  Your mother's health to house additions and everything in between was up for discussion.  Politics was definitely not out of bounds and Tom and Gene were masters at walking that tight rope of political discussion without upsetting anyone because of their views.

If you were young enough they would sit you on a board to raise you high enough for them to cut your hair.  They would ask you how you wanted it cut and while you were telling them they would be looking at your father for signs of how to really cut your hair.  You were never too young to be included in the conversation.  They would ask you about sports and school and how things were going for you.  Then what was going on with you would become topic for the rest of the men in the shop to talk about.

There was a big stack of old magazines on a table between the row of chairs.  The magazines were geared toward the male clientele.  Hunting magazines, science and boy scout as well as National Geographic were all displayed on the table.  They sold combs and hair tonic out of a rack next to the front door to keep your hair greasy and neat looking.

Every once in a while a police car or fire truck would race up the street in front of the shop and the group of men would start debating on what was going on.  When a car would pull up in front of the barber shop, Gene would announce who was arriving for a haircut.  Gene's chair was next to the window so he could tell what was going on outside.  He would give occasional weather bulletins if it started to rain or the wind got to blowing hard.  There was an empty chair next to Gene's and Tom's chair was the third one on the end.  It was the same setup for close to thirty years.

The two men enjoyed their work.  You could just tell it by the way they welcomed everyone into the establishment.  They were sincerely interested in their customers and made sure their customers knew it.  As I grew older and continued to go to Tom and Gene for my haircuts I became aware that after all these years they knew where I came from and what my history was.

The big day came when they pronounced you a man in their own little way.  The first time they took hot lather and spread it over your ears and down along your neckline followed by a straight razor with a very steady hand to be sure and get all the hair hanging around those hard to get places as close to your skin as possible, you knew you head entered a new phase in hair cutting.  Try and get that done at a chain hair clipping store.  It won't happen.

I eventually grew up and got married and adopted my son.  When Brett was old enough, I took him up to Tom and Gene's for a haircut.  They were thrilled to see another youngster in their chair.  Business had started falling off as the chains moved in.  Young kids and teenagers weren't as likely to go to a barbershop much anymore.  The cuts that Tom and Gene did were considered old fashioned and blase.  I kept going though and took my son with me.  The Saturday morning social hour was not what it use to be.  The waiting was not as long if there was any waiting at all.  The era of the old barbershop was slowly dying out.

I went in one Saturday morning and Gene wasn't there.  Tom told me he had retired and Tom was taking care of the business himself.  Tom was lonely in the shop all by himself so he hired a young barber fresh out of barber school to help him along. There really didn't seem to be enough business to require two barbers.  After that most of the time I went to the barbershop, Tom was in the back watching television instead of cutting hair.  Every time I went in though, he would ask me about how my dad was doing.  He still knew who I was and what my history was.  It was a talent that more small shop owners of any kind could learn a lesson from.

Eventually Tom sold the shop to the young kid.  After that it did not take long for the shop's history to come to an end and close the book on a piece of small town America that would forever be lost.

I miss the old barbershop.  I felt at home there and part of a special club where everyone was invited to join.  It was a part of the community that tied things together and brought neighbors together.  We need more places like the old barbershops in our communities these days.  No longer do we know our neighbors or how they think.  We don't know about different lives and difficulties or happiness those lives go through.  The day that Tom and Gene's closed down was a day in which a huge hole appeared in south Kansas City and I fear that hole will never be filled.

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