PASADENA, Calif. , May 17, 2017 — When Ray Atwan moved into his new barbershop at 27 Catalina Ave. in Pasadena, he didn’t wait long to spruce up the place, buying new barber chairs and donating the surplus to the Los Angeles County jails. He wanted to make a first great impression.
But that was 1964.
Fifty three years later, Ray, the shop and the “new” chairs are all still there, but none the worse for wear.
At 87 years young, Ray seems to be aging the best, showing up for work five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. He also comes in every Monday to clean and sharpen his tools, but he doesn’t count that day as a work day.
I know all this and a now a lot more because after a year of walking by his shop every day on my way to work in Pasadena, I finally poked my head into his shop last Tuesday.
Actually, what first caught my attention is that right next door to Ray’s Academy Barber Shop is the Mentor Barber Shop & Style Salon. Dueling barbershops on Catalina, I wondered, just off world-famous Colorado Blvd.?
Now it’s not all that unusual to see competing car dealers and mattress stores — not to mention mall merchants and outlet shops, — grouped together to create some retail sizzle, but barbershops? There are only so many hirsute heads rolling around, and so many millennials seem to cut their own hair these days. Wouldn’t the two shops be cannibalizing each other’s business?
Solving the Puzzle
To begin getting some answers to my nagging questions cost me the price of a haircut, but the investment in learning the truth was well worth it.
After I took my seat in Ray’s chair and he tucked the ruffle roll tissue into my shirt collar, I learned that Ray actually wanted to be a musician.
“I was a trumpet player and I got hungry,” Ray said. “I tried cutting hair for a couple of weeks and I liked it.”
For the next 40 years or so, Ray pretty much had the street to himself. His traditional scissors and comb cuts found an immediate audience with Caltech professors and other locals.
The professors liked his precision, plus the Scientific American magazines he kept around.
“Every hair I cut, I see,” Ray said, dismissing other barbers who rely too heavily on their clippers to cut hair.
Ray’s reputation also grew because near the end of every haircut, he delivers his signature move – hot lather and a straight edge scraping away the stray stubble around your neck and ear, after which he said you can feel the breeze.
But to be honest, I grew a little nervous at the thought of an 87 year old wielding a straight edge around my carotid. Perhaps, I had seen too many Good Fellas type movies in which the victim never gets up from the barber chair.
But Ray assured me his hand was steady, fortified by his four or five weekly visits to the L.A. Fitness in Hastings Ranch in East Pasadena. He also informed me that he eats well, watches his weight, takes an occasional sip of Jack Daniels and gets plenty of sleep.
In fact, when I asked him what was his favorite hobby, he was quick to answer, “Sleep!”
Because Ray is as wise as he is, he also knows that nothing stays the same forever. About 10 years ago, the Mentor Barber Shop & Style Salon moved in next door. Since 1926, the shop had done business on Mentor Ave., one block west of Catalina, but when the shop’s lease expired and the building’s owner wanted to remodel, then Mentor Barber Shop proprietor Steve B. Strong was forced to start looking for a new location, preferably close to his old location. He found Catalina.
Ray, of course, wasn’t happy, but after some 40-odd years of cutting hair, Ray figured he could count on a loyal clientele to stay with him even though his customers have seen his prices rise from $1.75 when he started out in 1964 to the heady $25 he now charges.
Trying to get under Ray’s skin a little bit, I noted that his next door neighbor was advertising haircuts for only $18.
“You’re paying for only half a haircut,” Ray said. “It’s not a complete haircut.”
“What’s a complete haircut? I asked. “I have to do it to show you,” he replied.
That’s how I ended up in his chair.
Then he sized me up.
“You haven’t had a complete haircut for a while,” he pleasantly growled. “I can see by the way it’s cut.”
When I asked him if I got a complimentary shampoo and rinse with my haircut, he told me that was just a gimmick. “That’s a bunch of baloney,” were his exact words.
“If you cut hair wet, you can cut it too short,” he explained. “Your hair stretches when it’s wet and when it dries up, it shrinks. Before you know it, you got a different haircut.”
For the next half hour Ray scissored and snipped away, mildly annoyed by my barrage of questions, including the burning one about that thin wall separating his business from his competitor’s.
“I don’t wish anybody bad,” Ray said. “I respect everyone. I’ve got my business, I’ve got my shop, I do what I can, I pay my taxes.”
Then he delivered the coup d’ grace, which he had earned the right to deliver after cutting hair for more than half a century.
“I’ve been in this location for 53 years,” he said with a full-throated firmness. “You’re damn right I’m good!”
Before I left, he also told me a good joke, one more throwback to the golden days of barbering before the advent of Supercuts and all of the other glossy haircutting chains.
“This out-of-shape guy at the gym asked his trainer what machine he should start working out on to impress the ladies,” Ray began. “The trainer looked him up and down and then said, ‘The ATM machine.’”
After a good laugh, I walked next door to hear the other half of the haircutting rivalry.
Barber Martha Dutchas quickly put to rest the notion that their dueling shops were feuding or had any snippy-kind of rivalry.
She, with about 15 years of haircutting experience, and her haircutting mate, Ruben, who has been a barber for 29 years, acknowledged that Ray was the haircutting dean of Catalina Ave.
So, instead of competing on longevity, they have decided to compete on price — that $7 difference. Also in their favor, the Mentor barber shop and style salon boasts a hard-to-miss, larger-than-life photo of a smiling and very satisfied customer, National Football League Hall of Famer Howie Long. Of course, the photo was taken 14 years ago when the shop was still on Mentor, but we’re not splitting hairs here. They have a celebrity endorsement, which outweighs Ray’s Caltech collection of anonymous brainiacs.
“I don’t try to steal his customers,” said an almost apologetic Martha. “I don’t pass out my cards to Ray’s customers.”
Just like Ray, Martha and Ruben don’t offer appointments. It turns out years ago, the Mentor shop had booked two different customers who shared the same name. When they both showed up at the same time to get their hair cut, there was some confusion and heated words were exchanged over who would sit in the chair first. After the incident, owner Strong said never again.
The two shops share a respectful, if fragile, truce. When a customer inadvertently walks into Martha’s shop and asks for Ray, she sends them next door. And when a customer hears that Ray wants to charge $25 for a traditional haircut that he can get next door for $18, he lets them go. When you’re considered Rembrandt of Catalina haircutters, you don’t haggle price.
When I left Martha, who had been so very gracious to answer all of my questions, I promised her that next time, I would have her cut my hair – just to even the score. As a journalist, I wanted to be impartial after all, giving both an equal opportunity to coif my unruly locks.
Plus, the next time, I might come out looking like an aging but tan, trim and tailored version of Howie Long.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention that when I went to pay Ray, I discovered he didn’t take credit cards, which reminded me that Ray was truly old school. However, he made it seem that the money wasn’t important or urgent, so I told him I would come round the following day with the money in hand.
I did, but not before he put me back in the chair to clean up a few stubborn hairs that had eluded him the day before. Here was a guy, I told myself, who literally stood behind his work.
Then I told him that I couldn’t believe he was still cutting hair when most people his age were lucky to still be upright.
“I’ve been blessed,” he said.
As I was walking away, I also felt blessed, knowing that I had not one, but two traditional barbers eager to keep me looking my best.