What does it take to be a barber on Bainbridge Island?
Besides the hand dexterity required to avoid drawing blood and managing a head of hair so that it’s presentable, he or she had better be long on perseverance, enjoy the company of gray-haired men and be a master listener and/or story-teller. And it might help if the barber likes to exercise to overcome the physical stress of standing several hours a day.
Notwithstanding several hairstylists on the island, Bainbridge has an ample number of skilled practitioners of the ancient art of flat-tops, crew cuts and nose-hair trims. There was a time when it appeared as if the venerable barbershop and it’s distinctive red-and-white pole might be replaced by the modern hair salon.
But old habits die hard for some, not to mention their resistance to paying 40 bucks simply to put some distance between hair and ears. So the likes of Chuck Stearns, Cherie Rogers, Anna Boccio and Mike Rogers stand ready with scissor and comb to trim thinning heads of aging hair 20 to 30 times a day.
All of them have been cutting hair long enough to grow their own crop of gray (though some have applied darker colors), and have perfected the craft to the degree of being able to do it with their eyes closed if they wished.
Of course, such a careless approach would never occur because the ability to read a customer is a critical attribute for anyone providing a personal service for the general public.
“When someone walks in here for the first time I start sizing him up right away,” says Stearns, who is the dean of island barbers with more than 30 years of service here. “I’m looking to see if, like, maybe the left side is longer that the right, so I’ll need to even it up. Then, I pay attention to exactly what he wants.
“That first haircut is very important because if you don’t get it right you probably won’t have a second chance.”
So what’s it like to be on the business end of all those sharp objects? Tiring, for one thing, though all except Mike Rogers at Sandy’s Barbershop on Winslow Way work on an appointment-only basis, which allows them to get off their feet once in a while.
But mostly it’s just providing a personable, quality experience to a constant parade of older men — with a few women and young boys mixed in — 15 minutes at a time. Most of the customers have been in there before, so both catch up on what’s new in their lives — or other people’s lives — while the barber goes on autopilot. Click, click click. Blah, blah, blah.
“I’m pretty good at what I do,” said Boccio, who has owned Cuts Above on Winslow Way for nearly 12 years. “I’m artistic and I believe there’s an element of creativity in what I do. I’ve never found it monotonous, though customers might sometimes. How? I’ve cut hair when people were napping. No problem for me.”
She prefers them with they’re more alert, however.
“I like the people here and I look forward to seeing them again,” she said before noticing that an elderly customer had approached the front door with the aid of a walker. She excused herself, walked to the door, lifted the walker inside and helped the man walk up the two steps. All in a day’s work.
“It’s an honest business in that you get a fair return ($16 for a basic cut) for your service,” she continued. “It was difficult for me at first, when I came here (from Seattle). I was doing walk-ins and people we’re checking me out. I had a lot of sleepless nights. I wondered if I had done the right thing.
“But after a couple of years I started to establish myself. It helped to go to appointments only. Now I appreciate the freedom of running my own business. And I enjoy the people very much.”
Cherie Rogers knows all about breaking into a man’s world.
At 18 in 1976, she became a “journeyman” in a downtown Poulsbo barbershop that catered to mill workers. For much of the first year she cut the hair of men who found their way to her chair primarily by default because the owner, a man, was already busy.
“They’d go to him first,” said Rogers, who now owns Island Barber, located in a small building located adjacent to her home on Sands Avenue in Bainbridge. “But eventually some of them tried me and then they started coming to me on a regular basis. They liked how I cut their hair.”
When she decided to move her Poulsbo business to the island — where she lived — in 2000, much of her clientele followed her.
“When men find a barber they like, they usually keeping going there,” she said. “They go to barbershops because they don’t like sitting next to someone who’s getting a permanent or there’s a lot of chemicals around. Now I’m cutting the hair of kids of old customers. It’s kind of fun.”
Stearns hasn’t always enjoyed plying his trade, but he’s a hair-cutting institution on the island, where’s he’s now in his third shop.
He started working for Erkine Sanders in Sandy’s Barbershop in the early 1970s, eventually becoming a co-owner. But he left Sandy’s after 13 years, worked elsewhere for a few years and then went to work in Bill Norris’ shop across the street from Sandy’s. He eventually bought out Norris.
Since September 2006, he’s been the sole owner and operator of Chuck’s Barber Shop in the Best Western complex on High School Road.
“I’ve been able to build up a good clientele because I’m businesslike about it,” he said. “There are a lot of subtleties to this job. Like being able to read the person, what their jobs are, their clothes, how important a haircut is to them. Mostly, I listen to them.”
Stearns enjoys a good conversation, but, unlike Boccio for example, he won’t offer much of himself. “I won’t gossip much,” he said. “I keep it short and sweet. Like in Las Vegas, what is said here, stays here.”
Boccio enjoys the interaction, too, but she has a different take on it.
“It’s fun to talk about what’s going on in the neighborhood,” she says in her shop, which, with warm colors, a black-and-white tile floor and fine art hanging from its walls, has more of a salon feel to it than amost barbershops. “People want to know what’s the news and I think they appreciate the information. It’s fine as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.”
Mike Rogers, who has operated Sandy’s Barber Shop for 12 of the last 13 years, said his business is beginning to rebound after he left the shop for a year. He prefers walk-ins only, which he says is best for his shop because of its central location and its old-time barbershop feel.
While barbering can be difficult physically, especially if a person is overweight, both Boccio and Stearns are thin and have remained healthy by exercising. Boccio jogs five or six days a week, while Stearns practices kung-fu for an hour three times a week.
“Standing can be tough,” Stearns said while trimming the back of a customer’s neck. “A lot of barbers have varicose veins, arthritis and carpal tunnel. I’m in better shape than I used to be.”
Barbers who jog and perform martial arts?
Whatever it takes, they say, to keep going.