I peered through the storefront window of John’s Barber Shop on Main Street beside the Armoury in Picton. There were half a dozen waiting for a cut, mainly men and two women and a small boy. I slipped inside and leaned into Michelle’s ear, “Can you do a CC this week?” She looked up from lathering the back of a neck a bit startled.
“Yes,” she hesitated. “Early tomorrow.”
That was our code to come early the following morning, seven o’clock instead of the usual opening at eight, with a coffee for her, medium roast black, and she would give me a cut on the spot. No waiting. I had devised this strategy as a way to avoid the legendary line up at the most popular barber shop in the County. It seemed that folks were quite content to wait some time to get into Michelle’s chair, or Elaine’s or Afton’s, to catch up on gossip and news.
John’s has become such a mainstay of Main Street that one of the marketing lines for the Royal Hotel when it first re-opened was, “opposite the Regent Theatre and the library and just steps to John’s Barber Shop.”
Michelle Mossey has been cutting hair at John’s since 1988, when she bought the business and the building from John, who had been a town barber since 1954. Her people, the Coles, are from Point Petre.
When I asked her to estimate the number she has shorn, she didn’t want to hazard a number. “I’ve seen a lot of fine heads in my time and I have thousands of friends in the County.” Customers become friends who come to visit and incidentally get a haircut at the same time.
With short, tufted hair, Michelle is an attractive strong-figured woman of medium height with arms and shoulders that benefit from regular yoga workouts. She has an open, expressive face in perpetual animation. The rhythm of her long days begins with a sweep of the sidewalk in front, or in winter a vigorous shovel of the fresh snow. Then check the window display to ensure it is reflecting the season, a special occasion, or a timely fund-raising event.
When I returned the next day, freezing, at 6:30, with Michelle’s coffee, I was alarmed to see the lights blazing and two customers already getting cuts. My CC ploy had been sabotaged. Slightly annoyed, I resolved to give the coffee to Michelle and return another time. Then I recognized the two heads in the chairs. Not all barbers are practical jokesters like Michelle. Somehow, she persuaded two of my friends, Arne and David, also her customers, to get out of bed very early on a dark winter morning, come to town, and take up both of the barber’s chairs — Arne was still in his bathrobe — so that my “Coffee Cut” would not take priority.
“Everyone gets treated the same,” she said.
The more I think about the well-known fact that barbers top the charts for job satisfaction, the more it makes sense. Happy customers are loyal, and return again and again. Everyone is greeted by name and a family enquiry, and usually a joke. Long time customer Howard laughs “it’s the only place I know where at no extra cost, I can get insulted.”
No one minds waiting because there is news and County chat to catch up on. The exchange of family and health notes is mixed with ongoing good-natured banter. Where else can you leave feeling better about yourself with a fresh cut and an update on your people. Like the famous Boston pub Cheers, John’s is a community hub where there are no customers, only friends and neighbours — and everyone knows your name.
I finally did have that coffee with Michelle but this time without a haircut. Early on a Sunday morning before the town was awake. She sat in her elevated chair, with Hazel and Damnit, her two German short-haired pointers, knocking about. Husband Richard was out hunting. “I don’t have any deep dark secrets,” she protests. “I just go to work and love my thing. Ten hours a day I am on my feet. I look people in the eye and don’t even know I am cutting hair.”
She worries about the changes in the County. She wrote a barbershop poem to the Editor of the Gazette. “Piece by piece/ our losses grow,/ now the airport,/ one by one, great people leave, now,/ why?” While I would not call Michelle an introvert, she does like to stay out of the limelight. That’s why she never changed the name thirty-three years ago when she bought the business. Or the décor. All 1990s Main Street classic. In his ode to John’s Barber Shop, writer David Carpenter describes “a red poinsettia stands on a shelf/between the blue Barbicide………yellow on the walls, and/seventeen carpenter aprons.”
As for the future of John’s, Michelle says, “I will be cutting hair till the day I die.” Good news that we can wave to Michelle for some time yet as we stride down Main Street. Or pop in for a cut and chat, and play our part in her new array of practical jokes.