RALPH BARTHOLDT: Old barbershops serve up more than a story and haircut

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He asked me about the end run.

The finer points as only a junior varsity tight end could attest.

“So, you kick the defensive end to the inside?” He asked.

Electric clippers whined in his hand like a fistful of bees, his hair graying, duck tailed, with the sides loosely clipped.

“That must take some quick footwork on your part.” His was unblemished sincerity.

He had played college football when pictures were black and white, and I later learned his name was on the plaques beneath running men cast forever in pewter inside the trophy case of the old high school, where pipes dripped sweat and heat ducts were asbestos-wrapped.

To me, he was just the barber, and he didn’t ask how to cut my hair.

Instead, he flapped an apron so it snapped, and after inviting me to sit in a spinning chair, he spoke softly, not a lot, usually asking questions until we patrons gabbed about ourselves.

He nudged us with his curiosity and our own sense of celebrity.

He was Dale Carnegie with a shears and skinny comb, a flat razor and leather strop. His walls had a few dead animals made to look alive, and if you came when the shop was full, you learned a lot about your neighbors and how to skin a buck for a shoulder mount or sharpen an ax, or about the baseball game you missed, or the latest issue of Field & Stream you thought you would.

“You gotta move your outside foot before anything else,” I explained, the ego of a ninth-grade starter well intact.

“You don’t say?” He inquired. Tell me more.

It pleased me to oblige.

My son, who is 12, says we cannot drive to Lewiston for a haircut because it’s too far. He says this in response to the grousing I do when the local shops are full, or, in my estimation, cost too much.

He is referring to Sam in Lewiston, where in a shop behind a spinning pole he cuts the hair of cops, soldiers from the National Guard, coaches, kids and retirees, but mostly men like Mr. Allen, a Nez Perce who talked about the olden days catching lampreys in Asotin Creek and eating them. About the annual pilgrimage upriver to pick berries as a boy, or across rattlesnake country from Cottonwood Creek to the salmon traps, and how he kept a garden so the deer could eat. Every Tuesday at 8:30 Mr. Allen, at 84, got his flat top trimmed until one day he didn’t.

Sam stopped the clippers.

“He won’t be coming in,” he said. “We lost him.”

And we had.

There is a wealth of stories in old barber shops, and history.

Sam, whose shop on Main Street adjoins the community policing office that closed after Bill Clinton left the White House and the money stopped, will tell you about fishing the Imnaha and Malad, about barbering in St. Maries way back when, and how down along the confluence below town, he used to catch some pike.

My son knows Sam by the stories he’s heard about his shop.

Down there, it’s usually a short wait, I tell him, with an article in Sports Afield to pass the time. And when Sam sweeps the hair from the floor and says who’s next, you sit and have the apron tucked around your neck.

No questions, the haircut is 12 bucks and takes 10 minutes, and in that time you learn about the tonks, cops and former toughs, the places where once you could get a beer and burger for a couple bills and where to shoot a buck.

I got a haircut the other day at one of the places my son prefers. The walls are devoid of trophy mounts, but there are TVs and the woman with the clippers is professional. The cut is what I asked for, to be clear and I am pleased.

I left a few bucks for a tip.

Not something Sam would expect.

If you left an extra dollar, he will say, “You finish reading that Outdoor Life? Go ahead and take it. There’s no end to them.”

There is an end to those old shops and once Sam turns the sign on his door for good, who knows where I’ll threaten to go for a no-nonsense 10-minute cut?

Who knows where I’ll threaten to drive just for the learning you can only get in old barbershops?

• • •

Ralph Bartholdt can be reached at rbartholdt@cdapress.com.

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