SOUTHBURY — Walter Barber, who has spent 50 years as a professional barber, will mark this milestone and his shop’s 44th year in Bennett Square with live music from Northern Bred Country Band and fun foods, including a hot dog cart and popcorn machine, on Saturday, October 5, at Walt’s Barber Shop, 31C Bennett Square, 134 Main St. South.
He told Voices, “I’ll start the chili bright and early. It should be ready for 11:30 a.m.”
Mr. Barber is looking forward to preparing the main dish with a good friend, adding special spices from his home state of Arizona. “It’s not too hot, but when it hits the back of your mouth, you know it’s there.”
About his friend he added, “We’ve been buddies for 30 years and, about five years ago, found out we’re third cousins seven times removed. My mother’s ancestors lived in Taunton, Mass. in 1684 and we happened across this information when we were comparing family trees.”
When one of his friends asked Mr. Barber to define the relationship, he responded, “Our blood bond is as thin as water.”
He described how he feels about his career with deep warmth and appreciates where he works. “I love it. Southbury has been good to me through the years. The town has accepted me and the people are good. I think they’ve done a great job keeping a small-town atmosphere with a beautiful Main Street.”
He has a loyal customer base and many happy newcomers but admits, “You won’t please everyone. There will be people who love the way you work and those who don’t.”
Before he settled on his chosen profession, Mr. Barber spent time riding in rodeos and driving in demolition derbies where he once earned a prize for best rollover of a car.
“I don’t consider myself a cowboy,” he said, admitting he was unable to stay in the saddle long enough to make rodeo a successful career path and some jolts left him with a condition that meant he could not serve in the military as was his desire.
On the advice of a friend, he applied to a barber school in January of 1957. “They were so busy, I had to wait until March to start.”
He opened his own shop in the mid-60s. “It’s great to be your own boss, but I also look at it this way: every one of my customers is my boss.”
He has two daughters, Kelly and Jill, with his wife Kathy, whom he met while still in Arizona. The couple moved to Connecticut one year after their wedding in 1968.
“It was time for a change and her family came from Southington. She’s been my rock. I’m pretty lucky she fell for me.”
Over the past five decades, he has cut the hair of five generations and some of the more famous heads include Waylon Jennings, Daniel Day Lewis and Arthur Miller.
“I’ve made a pretty good living so must be all right,” he said. “The hardest part about cutting hair is figuring out what someone wants. When you come close to that, the customer is happy.”
The barber explained that the rapport between barber and customer is very important. “I’m here for the people. If I see someone I know in the parking lot and it’s close to closing time, I won’t make him come back another day.”
Mr. Barber commented, “Customers are the most important part of this business. If they’re happy, I’m happy.”
There is always a pot of coffee in the back room and most customers help themselves.
A small group of men are regulars at that pot in the shop, arriving at 5 a.m. on Saturdays; each keeps his own cup hanging near the coffee maker.
Mr. Barber, who will cut hair for any adult, decided against serving children because their quick movements are difficult to anticipate at his age and he would prefer to avoid accidents with sharp cutting tools.
“I like that there are no routines here. You never know from one day to the next what business will be like.”
When asked why he wouldn’t retire, Mr. Barber said he enjoys the time he spends with his customers and, when there is a lull in the business, the private time he can spend as he likes in his own company, either reading or just relaxing.
The barber shop contains rare examples of the trade both used and collected over the years, photos and even a citation from the state commending Mr. Barber for collecting phone cards on behalf of military overseas.
He was able to raise $32,000 to buy the cards and, since they are no longer produced, he now collects for disabled veterans.
Remembering his father’s concise but meaningful advice when Mr. Barber quit school at 14, he commented, “Back in the day, we lived the golden rule, ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”
The life advice works well in business.
“I focus on the person in my chair and business is strictly walk in, first come, first served. I tell customers that if they have to leave, I can’t save their place.”
To this end, he will trust customers who don’t have the bills on hand to conform to his cash policy and serve them before they leave the shop to visit an ATM. “I’ve never had anyone not come back.”
Walt’s Barber Shop is open from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and 5 a.m. to noon on Thursdays and Saturdays.