French calls it quits after decades of cuts

September 02, 2002|by EDWARD MARSHALL

For the past 41 years, the barber business has been in Harold French's blood, as close to him as the assortment of clippers, shears and scissors next to his barber's chair.

Today, French, 67, will retire after manning three different shops during four decades of cutting customers' hair.

French began thinking about retirement after a few competing shops wanted to know if he would sell his barber shop. He agreed to sell the shop to Kutter's Barber Shop under the ownership of Lisa Carpegna, but only after the two years then left on his lease expired.

"Those two years went by pretty fast," French said. "It will be hard to walk away from it.

"At my age it's tough, though," he said. "I don't know how I could keep working full time."

French's road to becoming a barber started after four years of service in the Navy. After returning to civilian life, French said, he had a hard time finding work.


"That's when a friend talked me into going to barber school," French said.

He trained for a year at a Baltimore barber school.

After graduating, he began work in 1961 under a senior barber on Washington Street in Hagerstown. French eventually took over the shop and worked there until it was sold eight years later.

"At that time, a haircut cost one dollar and a flat top cost one-fifty," French said.

He opened his second shop on Elizabeth Avenue. Six years later, he moved the shop to 605 Virginia Ave., where he has been for more than 30 years.

"I've been coming here for about five years," said Fire Lt. Toby Higgins, 27, of Hagerstown. "A bunch of us from the Antietam Fire Company get our hair cut here.

"Hopefully, he'll stick around," Higgins said. "We told him we were going to get him a barber chair to put in the fire hall."

The shop was built as an addition to French's home, making his morning commute just a few steps from his front door.

"There's a part of me that's happy I'm leaving, and there's a part of me that wishes I could stay," French said. "It's something that's in your blood, because it's something you built and no one gave it to you."

What French has built is a business that has thrived over the years despite virtually no advertising.

There is a certain sense of loyalty when it comes to French's customers.

"I've been coming here for 20 years at least. We're good friends," said Russell Laber, 74, of Hagerstown.

"I've been coming here for about eight years. He can't retire," said Jack Lake, 71, of Hagerstown.

Inside the shop, the atmosphere is friendly. Conversations about current events spring up between regulars and newcomers alike.

Most take the time to ask French what he thinks about these things.

"I like that it's small, not like some of the big shops. It's more personal," said Blane Croksha of West Virginia.

It is not unheard of for French to make house calls.

He also pulled double duty for six years at the shop and at Western Maryland Hospital, where he gave haircuts to patients.

"You're never your own boss. Your customers are your boss and your work is your advertising," French said.

While the barber business has been good to French, there have been times when the business was tested.

French said the business was hit the hardest during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"Long hair almost destroyed the barber business. A lot of barbers went out of business," French said.

Now, business couldn't be better, he said.

With low overhead costs, French is able to keep his prices competitive at only $8 a cut.

"If it weren't for me worrying about my legs giving out, I would probably stay. I don't want to work until I'm crippled," he said.

French plans to travel after he retires and spend time with his family.

"I want to do some of things I've missed out on over the years," he said.

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