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Barbers, stylists connect and cut

March 14, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

katec@herald-mail.com

People spend a lot of time, money and energy on their hair. They color it, curl it, cut it. There's a world of do-it-yourself products and tools, and there are the worlds of the beauty salon and barbershop, places where professionals take care of the cutting and styling - and, it seems, much, much more.

The industry has changed. There are a lot of "chain salons," said Charlene Gearhart, "and that's fine."

But there also are long-term, multigenerational relationships between stylist and client, barber and customer.

Gearhart has been styling hair for nearly 30 years, and some of her clients have been with her that long - since before she opened her downtown Hagerstown salon, Charlene's Hair Gallery - nearly 27 years ago.

Gearhart and her co-workers cut clients' hair, and their clients' children's and grandchildren's hair.

"She's the family hairdresser," Judy Brewer said of Joyce Rankin, who's been at Charlene's "forever."

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The two have been friends for more than 30 years - longer than Rankin has been doing Brewer's hair.

Do they share personal things?

"Oh, yeah," Brewer said emphatically, as she and Rankin laughed conspiratorially.

Maria Staymates also has been a client of Rankin for more than 30 years.

"She's like a friend," Staymates said.

There's trust in the long-term relationship.

"I just let her do what she wants to do," Staymates said. "I know it's gonna be all right."

Rankin describes her relationship with a client as very honest. If someone comes in with a magazine photo of a hairstyle they'd like to have, Rankin will tell them why it won't work for them if she doesn't think it will.

The honesty and trust go beyond scissors and curling irons.

Do patrons confide in Gearhart?

"Oh, my heavens, yes," she said.

People tell her things they wouldn't tell their spouses. They feel comfortable doing so, because they trust that what they share goes no further. There is no gossip.

"It stops right here," Gearhart said.

"You get very close with your patrons," said Rankin, who's been a hairdresser for at least 36 years. "I really care about them, and they care about me."

Connected beyond the cut

Customers and co-workers become like family, Gearhart said. Her shop manager, Belinda Dowler, has been with her 27 years.

About 15 years ago, changes in licensing were proposed to include a course in psychology, Dowler recalled. It didn't pass, she said, but she understands why it was being considered.

"We deal with so many problems," Dowler said.

Rankin has gone to clients' homes to do their hair when they've been too ill to come to the shop.

Sometimes the relationships continue even after a customer has died. Family members have asked Rankin to do their loved one's hair at the funeral home - a free service that Rankin said she considers a final gift.

The conversation may not be quite as intimate at Baker's Barber Shop in Hagers-town, but many of the barber-customer relationships span years as well as distance.

Shop owner LeRoy Baker recently moved his business to East Washington Street after 38 years on West Antie-tam in Hagerstown. Many of his clients have been coming to his no-nonsense, two-chair shop, for nearly that long.

Baker doesn't know all of his customer's names. "I know faces," he said.

Semi-retired, Baker is open weekdays from 7 a.m. to noon. Often, clients are waiting for him to arrive. No appointments are necessary. Baker never knows how many patrons he'll have. "But it always works out."

Customers sometimes tell him personal things but trust that he won't repeat their tales, Baker said.

Some longtime patrons travel great distances for a LeRoy Baker haircut. Guys who have moved to New Jersey, Algeria and Saudi Arabia make a stop when they come back to Hagerstown.

Eighty-six-year-old Willis Rhodes has been coming from Clear Spring about once a month for a haircut and the good service for many, many years. He also enjoys talking to Baker.

If the barber has done his work, he'll know his customer, Rhodes said, explaining if you want to find out a person's reputation, talk to his barber.

"The lawyer can't even touch a barber," he said.

He said that with no offense intended to the man in Baker's chair, Assistant Washington County State's Attorney Joseph Michael.

Michael has been coming to Baker's for about 10 years. "I like it because it's fast."

He's had haircuts while awaiting jury verdicts in cases he's been prosecuting.

Does Michael confide in barber Baker?

"I usually just listen," he said.

Keep coming back

There was a lot of listening - along with some good-humored teasing - on a recent Thursday afternoon at Pete's Barber Shop in Boonsboro.

The flow of customers was steady, but shop owner Pete Buchanan laughed that it was a relatively slow day. Sometimes it's "standing room only," he said.

Teens, a mother with sons ages 2, 4 and 12, a grandfather and his grandson and 81-year-old Willis "Red" Leggett all waited for a turn in one of the three barber chairs.

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