ST. MARYS — Before the emergence of the “man cave,” there were barbershops, places where men gathered to socialize, talk sports and women, and tell jokes.
Barber Jon Schmitmeyer, owner of Schmitmeyer’s South Wayne Barber Shop, has been in business 53 years and counting — the oldest barbershop in town. He remembers a time when 15 barbers worked in St. Marys alone. In 1955, there was a year-long waiting list just to get into barber school. The shops were proliferating, from 1953 to 1963, according to U.S. Economic Census data, the shops had a four percent revenue growth.
Today, barbershops are dwindling with only a handful left in St. Marys. From 1992 to 1997, there was a 10.6 percent decline in the number of shops. From 1997 to 2002 the shops sustained another 4.3 percent loss, compared to a 1.6 percent decline in beauty shops during that time.
In the barbering heyday, men got their hair cut every week in flat tops, and the boys wore white walls — meaning their sideburns were cut off.
St. Marys was growing; Goodyear was in town near Schmitmeyer’s shop, employing 2,300 men who would come for a haircut and wouldn’t mind waiting two hours in his shop or at the bar next door, socializing with friends.
Local barber Dennis James was working in Columbus as a barber at the time, and he said there were hundreds of shops in town.
“Literally hundreds,” James said. “I couldn’t tell you how many.”
In February 1964, that changed when a previously unheard of British band called the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show sporting long hair and performing for a packed audience of screaming teenage girls.
It was the show that almost put barbers out of business.
Schmitmeyer saw his customers leaving in droves for more salon-like establishments. The final straw was seeing the names of his clients in his brother’s appointment book after his brother had additional training in cutting long hair.
Schmitmeyer remodeled, put in a hair washing sink, and went to seminars to learn long hair. He stayed in business as other barbers went bust.
James, on the other hand, was drafted to go to Germany during the Vietnam War. When he finished his stint and came back in 1972, the hair had grown longer than even the Beatles would have imagined.
“They had hair down to their rear ends,” James said.
He decided not to go back to the barbering business, opting instead to work for Goodyear and then Huffy.
Schmitmeyer was barbering at that time, listening to the stories of the returning troops who sat in his chair who talked about the downsides of war. It wasn’t all downsides, though, his customers brought drinking stories and racy jokes.
“I should have written down the punch lines to the jokes I heard,” Schmitmeyer said, although he said most wouldn’t be fit to print these days.
No matter the demographic, the barbershop remained a place men felt comfortable.
“They’d say, ‘we come in here because it’s a windy place,’” Schmitmeyer said.
More than a decrease in number, barbershops are changing. Men tend to go three weeks at a time without a trim. When they do come in, James said he notices they’re in a bigger hurry, busier than they were in the past.
Schmitmeyer said new customers come in and tell him their number — the number of the guard they’d like used over the shaver. Many men do their haircuts at home with the widely available electric clippers.
Children now bring in the pictures of their favorite athletes and ask for those styles, said James.
Almost no one gets their beards shaved at the barbershop anymore, something Schmitmeyer is thankful for, since he never liked doing it.
And then there are salons, and franchise hair establishments, which have gained in popularity recently.
“A lot of guys go to a salon looking for a date,” James said. “There’s not too much of that in here. I rely mostly on the older gentlemen for business. They’re consistent.”
He turns on a small vacuum cleaner to catch the hair he cut for longtime customer Ron Stumphauzer, whom he calls Stump.
“Will your wife let you back in the house now?” he asked Stumphauzer as he turned him back toward the mirror.
Like the flat top, the barbershop culture is left to a few men, a certain generation, to carry on the tradition.
Schmitmeyer said he’d heard of a new, younger barber in town and that made him think the business would keep going.
“I think it’s something someone will always do,” James said.