Preserving a Tradition: Moscow Barber Still Making the Cut After 35 Years

By Jonathan Gradin

The barber shop holds a quintessential place in Americana. From Andy Griffith’s Mayberry to Moscow, Idaho, barber shops functioned as places for men to hang out, share news and keep their hair trimmed. Nowadays, this tradition is gone, save for a few local shops.

“It’s a shame that the tradition of barbers has and is fading away… Traditionally, the barber shops were a place for men to B.S. and get warm by the stove,” said Bill Jones, 71, semi-retired owner of Bill’s Barber Shop on Second Street. It was “sort of a man-cave situation.”

Jones began cutting hair in 1979, when he he sold his convenience store in Calder, up the St. Joe River from St. Maries. He said he was tired of the seven-day-a-week and extra after-hours nature of the store, which robbed him of family time.

“I wanted to get into something where I was still in business, but when you walked away you were done for the day,” Jones said.

A family friend, Art Gilliam, offered Jones a partnership with the option to take over the business, on the condition that Jones attend barber school.

“It had nothing to do with any desire to cut hair particularly,” Jones said, although he found he enjoys it. Community members drop by to talk, and others drop in for directions.

“You’ve got to be able to tolerate the standing,” he said. “You’ve got to enjoy visiting with people and bite your tongue occasionally.”

Obtaining a barber’s license meant nine months of school at 40 hours per week, followed by an apprentice-level test and a one-and-a-half-year apprenticeship. Idaho law used to require a second Master Barber test after the apprenticeship, but they dropped that requirement before Jones obtained his license.

Jones carried out his apprenticeship with Gilliam in his current location and became the sole proprietor upon Gilliam’s retirement in 1983. At that time, five barbers ran three shops in Moscow; now, only Jones’ remains, excluding salons and beauty parlors. Two decades later, at age 62, he drew social security and throttled back to part-time status. He only opens the shop from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with lunch from noon to approximately 1:30 p.m.

Jones said that ideally he would like to have a younger person come along and eventually take over, but he’s not ready to give up yet. Finding someone will be a challenge thanks to the decline of barber schools following the popularity of longer and product-intensive salon hair styles since the ’60s and ’70s. Despite this he has an established customer base, about 40 percent of which are college students.

“I’m going to keep doing just what I’m doing as long as I’m able,” Jones said. “I don’t know anything I could do that I’d do better part time.”

***

The barber shop is small and barely noticeable from the outside, save a barber pole that spins when the shop is open. Two tall, narrow plate glass windows frame a glass door. Inside, the 15-by-23-foot space is cozy with a feeling of nostalgic antiquity. A radio plays classic rock through two wall-mounted speakers from the ’70s or earlier.

Two 1950s-era low-backed brown leather Koken barber chairs stand guard on the left side of the room, in front of a Formica counter topped with clippers, scissors, combs and other equipment. A small jar humorously proclaims its contents: “Ashes of Problem Clients.” To the immediate left stand three shelves cluttered with antique glassware (including a couple small lanterns), hair products and a can of WD-40. A bag of peanuts—with which Jones feeds visiting squirrels outside—sits on the left-side steam radiator that fronts the windowsill. The floor is variegated red-orange linoleum with a few worn holes in places.

On the right side of the room, two faded tan sofas separated by a brass-trimmed magazine rack form a comfortable waiting area. Mottled green and orange carpet rises halfway up the wall, above which sit dark wood paneling and large square mirrors for patrons to see their haircut in progress. Vandal and Cougar flags frame a Bulova clock. At the near end of the sofa sit two boxes of books, mostly fiction, which Jones—an avid reader and occasional writer—offers on an informal exchange system. Customers read the books while waiting, take home the interesting ones and bring in books for others to enjoy.

Business is pretty slow on Thursday afternoon near the end of February. Bald-headed and slightly plump, Jones wears khaki slacks, brown leather shoes and his signature light-blue Hawaiian shirt with Japanese print. He chats with a friend in denim coveralls about the weather and other matters of trivia.

An elderly customer wearing jeans and a plaid shirt walks in for a haircut, Jones’ only appointment of the afternoon. His pure-white hair is about two inches long, yet is too thin to hide a developing bald spot.

“Fairly short?” Jones asked him.

“Yeah, I haven’t been to a barber since November.”

“I can tell,” Jones said good-naturedly.

As his customer sits in the chair, Jones follows a routine established through years of practice and the indoctrination of consistency by one of his instructors. First, he combs the hair to get a feel for the thickness and type, the results of which determine his choice of scissors or trimmer.

“Learn to become proficient with both the clippers and the scissors,” he offers as advice. “You go into some of these run-by-ladies styling shops…if they’re asking what attachment to put on the clipper, I’d say generally beware.”

Jones starts cutting with the trimmer on the right temple, then works his way around the back to the left side. Usually the top is last, followed by minor trims behind the ears and on back of the neck. Jones still follows traditional practice of trimming these extra-close with a straight razor and warm shaving cream from a lathering machine. Jones no longer offers straight-razor shaves because of liability reasons and lack of economic viability.

Today, the shop’s landline rings midway through the haircut, a teal phone with a mechanical ringer.

“Barber shop,” Jones answers.

The voice on the other end asks if he offers men’s haircuts.

“Yes, I’m a barber,” Jones replies, hanging up after giving hours and directions.

Thanks to his routine, he quickly resumes where he left off. He trims the top using scissors, then tapers the top into the sides using a comb as a guide. After trimming with the razor, he vacuums the loose hair with a countertop hose unit, after which the customer pays and leaves.

In a typical day, Jones will do about 10 to 20 hair cuts, although today was slow. His personal record was 33 haircuts in one day, back in the 1980s when Moscow hosted a military ball. Most of these were quick buzz cuts and flat-tops, but Jones said he was exhausted.

Most of Jones’ cuts are a medium-length taper, or what the salons call a fade, so named because the slightly longer top tapers down to a shorter length on the sides and back. Jones rarely promotes the use of hair gel or other products unless his clients ask for it. Flat tops are one of the more difficult styles, Jones said, because they are less forgiving if the barber messes up.

“One of the things that is good about the barber business is that mistakes usually grow back,” Jones said.

When asked for advice for prospective barbers, Jones said, “Name your business to be at the top of the Yellow Pages,” i.e. choose a name that starts close to the beginning of the alphabet. Being an independent barber has its advantages, he said, such as “no boss breathing down your neck,” but don’t expect any paid vacation.

Jones only accepts cash, as several bank-hosted ATMs are located within a two-block radius. Hair cuts cost $14, although buzz cuts and seniors 60 and older only pay $12. Bill’s Barber Shop, 109 E. Second St., can be reached at 208-882-8989.

(This was a how-to/experiential article assignment for JAMM-425 Feature Article Writing at the University of Idaho.)

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