Old-Fashioned Barber Spurns ‘Foo-Foo’ for Shave, Cheap Haircut
It looked like any other afternoon on Newport Avenue in Ocean Beach. Street people weaved along the sidewalk. Drunks huddled in a corner near the cafe, which has been there for years. And, at the Old Ocean Beach Barber Shop, hair was being cut--not styled--just like it was when the place opened in 1943.
Dennis Sonner, 60, owner of his own construction firm before he retired, was perched in the chair, frowning. He was grumbling about the neighborhood being grander in the old days.
A jet rumbled noisily overhead. Sonner winced.
“That’s part of what’s different,” he groused. “When I came to this neighborhood, it was all mom-and-pop stores, green grass, folks sittin’ on their front porch. Now, everything’s deteriorating and run-down. The merchants work hard, but there’s no clientele. More businesses fold here than start.”
Recently Bought Shop
Oh, it isn’t as bad as all that , Julie Rice seemed to be saying. Rice is co-owner of the Old Ocean Beach Barber Shop, where she’s worked since 1984, when she got her barber’s license. She and Patty Stelmaszak recently bought the shop, which, Rice said, opened five owners and 45 years ago.
Rice and Sonner agree, things aren’t what they used to be. But Rice thinks Ocean Beach is changing for the better. She hates the “ foo-foo chi-chi " salons that men seem to prefer nowadays. She wanted to cut hair in the kind of shop you might find on reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show.”
Call Rice the Floyd of Ocean Beach.
Sonner thinks the ‘60s were the death of the neighborhood--"Long hair, drugs, sloppy clothes and thongs on the feet"--and Rice seconds the emotion as far as hair. She prefers haircuts performed by electric clippers and snipping scissors, doused with sweet-smelling tonic and white powder that leaves men twitching their noses.
The barber chair--her shop has three--has to be just right. It looks a little bit like a dental chair. The sink has to be a pedestal sink with one faucet. It helps to have goldfish swimming in a tank, and antique signs commemorating special brands of chewing tobacco.
Kids can be “bribed” by the gumball machines in the corner.
“You have to do that,” she said, “to make sure they sit still.”
And, of course, any old-fashioned barber shop must have an electric red, white and blue barber pole revolving in the corner.
“We wanted to get rid of all of the foo-foo frills,” she said. “We want a clientele that just wants a good haircut. The thing I loved about the old barber shops--like this one--was the warm, comfortable feeling. We have three generations coming here to get their hair cut--grandfathers, fathers and grandsons.
“Old barber shops were like the heartbeat of a small town. Years ago, people--mostly men--would gather there, just to talk and get shorn.”
They do the same at the Old Ocean Beach Barber Shop. Rice said the topic these days is politics. Half her customers--"mostly the older ones"--want George Bush for president. The other, younger half want Michael Dukakis or anybody but Bush.
Rice grew up in a small town in Illinois. Her father was a banker, her mother a teacher. Her ex-husband was a “high-powered executive,” so when she moved here from Boston eight years ago, divorced and a mother of three, she wanted to be as far away from Type A stress as she could get.
She came to San Diego, and after a couple of years working as an X-ray technician in a hospital, she wanted as far away from ill and ill-tempered customers as she could get. She liked the idea of barbering but only wanted men for customers. She said women are “too picky and neurotic about their hair--I know, ‘cause I’m the same way.”
Nostalgia is important to Rice, and to her partner. Rice defines nostalgia, at least the kind represented in the shop, as “history. . . . History should be cherished in a city like San Diego. You preserve history by preserving places like this.”
Even hair cuts are worth preserving, Rice said.
“Hair styles take longer,” she added pointedly. “I wanted more volume. Why take an hour (for a styling cut), when a haircut is over in 10 to 15 minutes?”
Rice describes her clientele as “salt of the earth--nice, average guys. Some are professionals; others are carpenters and plumbers. Every now and then, we get the street people and the crazies in here. We have Navy guys and senior citizens. A good mix.”
The Old Ocean Beach Barber Shop charges $6 a haircut and also offers shaves, which Rice said most styling salons don’t offer, or can’t. (Most aren’t licensed to do shaves.) She said a bad day is only 15 customers; a good day, such as a Saturday, is 35 customers or more. Rice works two days a week by herself, as does her partner. They share Mondays and Saturdays.
“I want out of here,” Sonner, her customer, said of Ocean Beach. “Life has to be better than this. San Diego has gotten too crowded, too big, too mean. To me, all it has is weather.”
“Well, I’m happy,” Rice said. “Just let me cut hair--in a shop like this. That’s all I ask. What more could any real barber want?”