Eugene Weekly : Eugene Celebration : 9.1.11

A Cut Above
Fifty years of trims and tales at Larry’s Barbershop
by Rick Levin

Walking through the open door of Larry’s Barber Shop is like stepping into the vortex of a time machine that only moves in one direction. Antique doo-dads, vintage signs and old photos line the walls and shelves: tools of the trade long out of use, such as hand-powered squeeze clippers dating to the late 1800s, a restored Bristow’s clock, and an actual ka-ching wooden cash register that looks like a prop from a Preston Sturges movie. The two barber chairs are things of beauty — hand-cranked, swiveling, hinged contraptions of vinyl and steel that look better put together than most cars these days.

Larry Owens and Jolan Hill. Photo by Trask Bedortha.
(Clockwise from top left) Larry Owens, Leo Washington and “Garlic” George Stevens at Owens’ first barbershop on Willamette, which he held from 1960-1972. Photo by John Bauguess
Larry Owens gives Rich Schwartz a trim. Photo by Todd Cooper

The building is little more than a bunker. Sitting recessed at the back of the lot on 13th Avenue between Olive and Willamette, it’s small, squat and undistinguished as a block of government cheese. The walls are stacked brick, painted a blanched olive drab, and the big plate windows are barred on the inside. A desert of asphalt surrounds it. The place once housed the offices of a used car lot.

Viewed from the street, the only things hinting at what’s inside are a pole on the sidewalk, standing some 15 feet high and decorated top to bottom with those symbolic swirls of red, white and blue — though, needless to say, the days of bloodlettings and leeches and molar extractions are long gone — and a sandwich board propped on the grassy easement that reads: “Men * Womens Hair Cuts $11,” and under that, “Seniors $10.”

Larry is Larry Owens, and though he’s hardly an antique himself, you might properly call him vintage, an old-fashioned barber from the days before hair was mastered and cuts went super. His shop is a piece of living history, a functional museum and a testament to hard work and craft.

In 1959, Owens became the youngest licensed barber in the state of Oregon. He was 17. Now 70, Owens has been cutting hair that whole time, mostly in Eugene. He says that at this point in his career, “I’ve probably cut some of ‘em’s hair close to 50 years. I cut their hair when they were young, and then their sons’ hair, and then their grandsons’ hair.”

Owens has a memory like a steel trap. He doesn’t just recall dates from decades ago; he remembers exact days. Most of his customers, if not damn near every one, are greeted by first name.

The men who get their hair cut at Larry’s are typically of a generation for whom the barbershop was a regular stop, part of a weekly or bi-weekly routine that was as much social as it was hygienic. Back in the day, a haircut was not a personal statement of style; it was maintenance. You knew your barber, and he knew you and your hair because he’d cut it just a few weeks ago. You didn’t tell him you wanted it “short on the sides, natural in back, with sideburns, and leave a bit on top and in the bangs.” You simply asked him to “clean it up.” Or you didn’t mention your hair at all. You sat down and your barber turned on the clippers and went at it.

Early last week, for instance, when Everett Blais walked into Owens’ shop for a trim, you might have thought the two men were brothers-in-law. “Hello, Easy Money,” Blais calls out as he strolled through the door. Owens smiles and asks him how he’d been.

“Oh, I’m getting old,” Blais says, giving me a wink. As he takes his seat in the barber’s chair, Blais tells me he’s lived his entire life, all 95 years of it, right here in Eugene. “And my damn hair keeps growing,” he says, laughing.

As Owens goes to work on Blais’ hair, the two men keep up a constant patter, a back and forth full of humor and gentle ribbing. “I’m one of his agitators,” Blais says to me while Owens, busy with the clippers, grins. “I rile him up.”

They start telling stories about bad hair days of years past, such as the time Blais and his father took turns trimming each other’s hair with these new electric clipper that his dad had just bought. When Blais returned home with his new haircut, his wife, horrified, asked her husband what happened. “Well, I guess something didn’t work out too good,” he recalls, chuckling.

That story reminds Owens of the “trim comb,” a new-fangled device that came out in the ‘70s, which was basically a comb with shears built right into the teeth. “That razor blade cut anything that stuck out,” Blais says. “It worked great if you didn’t use it.”

Owens smiles. “Those trim combs was the best invention that barbers ever had,” he says, recalling the dozens of customers who came into the shop needing their botched haircuts fixed. This then leads Owens and Blais into a recollection of a barber they knew back in the day and the near-heroic amount of coffee he used to consume. Blais begins to crack up.

“You could hear it sloshing around in his stomach when he moved,” he says, his eyes watering. He guesses it was all that coffee that eventually did him in.

“It wasn’t the coffee that killed him,” Owens says. “It was the stuff they sold in the tavern.”

Hair Stories

Since the time of Aristotle, the village barbershop has been central to the social and political life of society. This is where the real news gets relayed: insider gossip about who’s been drinking too much lately, where the mayor ate last Tuesday, hot fishing spots, cold snaps, construction projects, the cost of gas, marriage, divorce and taxes, the red lipstick on the collar, the quarterback’s sprained pinkie finger. The barbershop is where folks congregate to wag their tongues while they get their ears lowered. Offer opinions. Make predictions. Tell tales.

“You get some pretty wild stories, all right,” Owens says. “Most of ‘em I don’t want to repeat.” He says the most popular topics of conversation are the weather, current events, hunting and fishing (he’s an avid sportsman), and sports — especially all things Ducks. During football season, the prospects and fortunes of the UO squad provide a running commentary, and every customer bidding farewell gives a “Go Ducks” that is returned by all.

“You hear all different viewpoints on all different subjects,” Owens says, though he himself avoids the world’s two greatest goads to argument. “I had what I felt was a very wise teacher,” Owens says of an instructor he encountered during his years of apprenticeship. “There are two topics, if you’re smart, you won’t get involved in — politics and religion,” he explains of a personal rule he’s followed for more than a half century of hair cutting. “Those two subjects I stayed away from, and I still do.” When it comes to customers and politics, “I listen, they talk.”

Owens speaks with the slow, deliberate cadence and drawling hard vowels of a lifelong Oregonian, though until the age of seven he lived in the small town of Heavener, Oklahoma (“spelled like the place, but with an ‘e’ and an ‘r,’” he tells me). Now he considers himself an O.I.O., or “Oregon Improved Okie.” Owens grew up in Riddle, where he graduated high school on Thursday, May 28, 1959; the following Monday he was enrolled at Moler Barber College in Portland. He received his apprentice license 10 days before his eighteenth birthday, and he’s been a working barber ever since.

Think of it: Larry Owens has been cutting hair in Eugene for more than 50 years. That’s enough follicular DNA to repopulate a mid-sized city. How many pillows could you fill with the collected clippings Owens has swept from the floor? Could all those strands, knotted end to end, circle the globe? How many times?

“I have no idea,” Owens replies when I ask him to guess the number of haircuts he’s given at this point. If you figure, conservatively, that he serves an average of five customers a day, multiplied by 52 five-day workweeks over 50 years, you’ve got 650,000 haircuts.

Next I ask him who’s the most famous person he’s ever had in the barber chair. “Probably you,” he says with a sly smile.

“When I first came to Eugene I was the young kid on the block,” Owens says. “Now I’m one of the old codgers.” His first shop, opened in 1960, was on Willamette between 6th and 7th avenues. In 1972, he relocated to a place across from the old Eugene Post Office downtown. He’s been at the current shop since 1995.

Hair Style

During all the years he’s been wielding the clippers, Owens says he’s seen hairstyles come “full circle,” from crew cuts to longer hair and back to regular cuts. “Flat tops are back,” he says. Owens quit doing shaves about 10 years ago, though he still has his straight razor, and the strop he used to sharpen it continues to hang from his barber chair, a relic of the days before HIV.

One of the things keeping Owens in business through all the economic ups-and-downs and changing fashion trends is a generous, laissez-fair attitude toward his customer base. During the ‘60s, for instance, when hippies turned au naturel into a way of life, Owens didn’t shy away from letting the longhairs take a seat.

“There were a lot of barbers that went out of business in those times because they refused to do the long haircuts,” he says. “Ourselves, we just tried to do whatever the customer wanted. Anyone’s welcome, and it’s first come, first serve. Any day that we’re open, we’re open to anyone that wants to come in.”

There is no arrogance or liberal preening about Owens’ tone; you can tell that, for him, any form of discrimination simply runs counter to good common sense. “You treat others how you’d like to be treated and you get along pretty well in this world, for the most part,” he says.

Half-Assed Psychology

Owens is just a really nice guy, and his nice is the opposite of used car salesman nice: He is genuinely kind and agreeable instead of obsequious and ingratiating. Though not opposed to starting up a conversation, more often he’s a listener, interjecting a word or two to spur the monologue. Owens claims there’s nothing all that tough about his job, though he says that along with knowing how to cut hair, “you’ve got to be a half-assed psychologist, too.”

Not to mention ready for emergencies, such as when the electricity suddenly went out during the Columbus Day storm of 1962. At that moment Owens had a gentleman from Cottage Grove in the chair. “I told him I could do one of two things,” he recalls, which involved either having the guy return when the power was back, or letting the barber finish now with a pair of manual squeeze clippers from the 1890s. I ask Owens how he did with the old clippers. “I tried,” he says with a grin.

Another time, there was an elderly customer who’d just had surgery and, despite his wife’s protest, insisted on getting a haircut. “While he was in the chair he passed out,” Owens recalls. He dialed 911 right away, and as Owens waited for the EMTs he administered cold towels and made sure the guy kept breathing. The man lived.

But nothing beats the stories about Fred, the one-eyed dry cleaner. Owens used to stay open Saturdays when he owned the shop by the post office, and every couple of weeks Fred was in the habit of getting liquored up early and then dropping by for a trim and a shave.

Well, this one time, Fred stumbles in particularly drunk, and when it came his turn he plopped down in the barber chair. Owens finished up with his hair and then, removing Fred’s glasses, lathered up the dry cleaner’s face for a pass with the straight razor. When he was through, he told Fred to sit back while he put his glasses back on.

Standing behind the chair and in full view of the rest of the customers, Owens took Fred’s glasses and applied a thick coat of shaving cream to the lens for Fred’s one good eye. He slipped them on. “Okay, Fred,” he said. “There you go.” The man sat up in the chair, froze a moment, and then started shouting: “I’m blind! Good Lord, I’m blind!”

Everyone in the shop busted out laughing. Finally Owens removed Fred’s glasses and wiped them clean. “God damn it, Larry,” Fred said, shaking his head, “you got me good.”

Some years later, Owens recollects, Fred — who wasn’t lacking in physical girth — went to make a call in the phone booth that used to stand near the steps of the post office. Right in the middle of the call, Fred dropped dead, and his body got wedged into the tiny space. “He was a good sized guy,” Owens says, “and they had a heck of a time trying to get him out of that phone booth.” If memory serves, he said, they eventually had to disassemble the booth in order to get Fred out.

Needless to say, that telephone booth is now only a figment of the past. In fact, you’d be hard pressed these days to find a telephone booth anywhere — they’ve gone the way soda fountains, voting booths and highway cafes, relegated to the dustbin of our collective cultural history. We are not necessarily better off for such losses, which put the squeeze on what was once called social space — the places we gather in person to talk, catch up, hear the latest gossip.

And get our hair cut.