Ski town's own CNN: Barbershop tradition has weathered city's changes

Ski town's own CNN: Barbershop tradition has weathered city's changes

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WHITEFISH - It's painful, actually, watching this lady try to parallel park her banana-yellow Hummer.

You can't help but cringe, want to turn away, close your eyes.

But you cannot.

No, you simply cannot pull your gaze away as all this conspicuous wealth inches back and forth, back and forth, trying to be smaller than it is, trying not to crush the late-model sedan in front, the pickup truck behind.

Finally, amazingly, the Hummer nestles in, albeit a couple feet from the curb, just outside the sushi bar, next door to the organic clothing boutique. That's where she'd headed in her big yellow Hummer, for green duds.

Across the street, Don Kaski shakes his head, runs a hand through a newly shorn buzz cut and wonders at it all.

"Now is this really Whitefish?" the longtime resident wonders. "Why, you'd never know it."

But beneath the boutiques and the galleries, behind the restaurants and the condos, the town - that is to say the community - of Whitefish persists.

Kaski's close-cropped hair proves it.

He's just stepped out of a doorway at 420 E. Second St., where he got buzzed at the Clip Joint. That's a downtown barbershop, been here since 1947, specializing in the crew cut, the flat-top, the taper, the high-and-tight, among others. They'll also trim your eyebrows, your ears, the back of your neck, all the hairy head parts.

There are no glossy coffee table books here to highlight the latest do, no shelves of conditioner, no racks of gels and mousse.

And, most importantly, there are no appointments, which makes all the difference in the world. Here, you must wait, and in the waiting you must make time to find the Whitefish that was, and, fortunately, still is.

"You hear it all day," said Melissa Franklin, who bought this business 10 years ago, the third owner of what started 60 years ago as Herb's Barber Shop. "People talk about it. There's a lot of frustration and disillusionment and unhappiness about the direction Whitefish is going."

At the moment, it's going back and forth again, back and forth, as the bright yellow Hummer tries to get back out onto the street.

Franklin's seen that sort of back and forth before, "and it's kind of tearing the community up a little bit."

Inside the cramped Clip Joint are a half dozen wooden chairs, salvaged from the historic Whitefish Central School after voters approved a recent remodel there. The chairs replaced the tired old Clip Joint couches, because, as Colene Metzker said, "I got tired of fishing little old men out of those cushions."

Metzker cuts customers in the shop's south chair, while Franklin clips in the north.

They face the row of antique wooden seats, so many familiar bits of history full, this morning, of much bigger bits of history, old-time locals who are quick to tell you what's what, whether you ask for it or not.

Peter, who grew up in Whitefish before leaving to "make my way in the world," was first buzzed in this barbershop as a boy, six decades back. He then spent a career as a real estate developer, building up other ski towns, and he knows a thing or two about speedy change in the lazy rural West.

The new ownership at nearby Big Mountain ski area - recently renamed Whitefish Mountain Resort - has it all wrong, Peter says.

They forced the resort's founders out of ownership, replaced parking lots with real estate, even changed the mountain's name.

"The one thing you don't mess with is you don't change tradition," Peter said. "You don't try to remake a place that way just because you can afford to buy it. It'd be like a bunch of PETA people coming here and trying to shut down deer hunting. I mean, what are they going to do, change the name of Glacier National Park when the glaciers are gone?"

Peter isn't exactly poor, doesn't exactly resent the wealth that has so changed the face of his hometown.

"Some people with money are really nice," he said. "They've done a heck of a lot of nice things for Whitefish. Built the playhouse, and the library. But some of this arrogance, it's just amazing. Just because you can buy it doesn't mean you own it."

Franklin knows about that. Last winter, a seasonal second-home owner in town for the holidays showed up for a haircut in his full-body velour jogging suit. And he didn't want to wait.

"So he pulls out this wad of fifties and hundreds and tries to buy the customer out of my chair," Franklin said. "It wasn't like he was in any particular hurry. He didn't have to get back to work. I mean, he was wearing a velour jogging suit.

"He just didn't want to wait," she said, "and so he figured he could buy a cut in line."

Franklin kept quiet, let her customer handle it. "He told him he was a working man, and could pay for his own haircut, thank you very much, and that since he'd waited his turn, he was going to take his turn."

The jogging suit left in a huff, she said, but returned not long after to do what people do here - wait. Seems he went down to the coffee shop to complain about the shop, but everyone told him to go back, because it was the best cut in town.

"But you know," Franklin said, "that was just one guy. Most of the new people are great. They're a lot like the old-timers. They just come in to visit and get a haircut."

The visiting, in fact, is what it's all about. You hear about garden tomatoes and grandchildren and fishing holes. You hear from 6-year-olds and 66-year-olds and everyone in between. You hear about neighbors and news.

"You can learn more about what's going on in the world in this barbershop than anywhere else," Peter says. "Especially CNN. When it comes to news, CNN's got nothing on this barbershop."

"You hear about people's lives in the barber chair," Franklin agreed. "Sometimes, you get too much information."

A sign on the wall advertises a haircut for $10, a haircut with a therapy session for $75.

"I don't know what it is about barbers and bartenders," Franklin said. "I've been both, and people just want to vent the crud in their lives to you."

Today, though, Franklin has a sob story of her own for the customers. Seems the barber police want her striped pole.

Thing is, Franklin trained under three master barbers, even managed a big barbershop down in California for a while. She knows all the clipper cuts, the butch and the Ivy League and that high-and-tight. And for a decade, she's operated here in Whitefish as a barbershop.

But her license says "cosmetologist," not "barber," and the Montana Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists (yes, there really is such a thing) says her barber pole must go (yes, they really do worry themselves about such things).

And so today the talk in the shop is the shop itself. "Absurd," is a word that pops up pretty often. So is "ridiculous." The barber cops are, Ron says, "splitting hairs." The room groans.

"I've been doing barber cuts for 15 years," Franklin said. "We do all the clipper cuts. They need to go beyond the pole."

"It gets to this," 69-year-old Rich says. "How far do we let people go to control our lives and our businesses? These are small people with small jobs and too much time on their hands. We should just tell them to leave us the hell alone."

Franklin asked if she could just take the barbering test, but the board said no, she'd have to go through the whole barbering school, despite her years of experience. Problem is, there's no such school in Montana.

And so, for the first time in 60 years, there may be no barber pole at 420 E. Second St. And no painted pole in the window. And no tiny wooden pole on the wall, advertising shave and a haircut "$.05 cents," tooth pulling "$.02 cents." And no plastic spray bottles designed to look like poles. The barber police want it all gone.

Unless.

Colene Metzker and Ron Olson can't get the job done, what with all the laughter and banter tossing around the Clip Joint. Part of the reason locals come here is the haircut, but another part is the neighborliness while they wait their turn.MICHAEL JAMISON/Missoulian


Whitefish is still a small town, you see, small enough that a barber, or a cosmetologist or whatever, can call up a state senator at home and ask for his help. Last-minute intervention by Sen. Dan Weinberg, D-Whitefish, has bought Franklin a hearing before the barbering board this fall. She calls it her "stay of execution," and it's big news here across from the sushi joint.

"That pole's a piece of history," Franklin said. "It's one of the last signs of old Whitefish that still exists downtown."

Already, the barber police have made her change the pole's color - from red, white and blue to red and white - but to take it down, she said, "would be so sad for downtown."

It is, in many ways, a sign of the times in this changing town, where everyone except the newest of newcomers still call Big Mountain by "its proper name," as Rich says.

But times are changing, worries Peter, who's waited 45 very happy minutes for a 10-minute trim. "These days," he said, "you get caught taking a leak out back of Casey's Bar and they put your name in the paper. Hell, I've got prostate problems. I can't wait, sometimes."

(Casey's Bar, in fact, is the other historic hangout downtown, and has inspired Franklin to seek a historic designation for her barber shop as a possible way to retain the pole.)

"The new money in town has been really great for the community," Peter said, "but like I said, you have to be very careful about riding into town and messing with tradition."

He's sitting in a barber's chair built in the late 1930s, next to an electronic hobby horse built before that, under a picture of popular haircuts from the 1950s.

He's facing that row of antique chairs salvaged from the historic town school, full of customers long-since retired, and a couple not yet in school. These guys know a thing or two about tradition, and what it's worth.

"When we die," Peter announces, "there won't be any common sense left in the world."

And then conversation swings to politics, to prescription drugs, to wildfires. They talk about squirrels and pine cones and what those signals might mean for an early winter. Talk turns to raspberry patches, to

ex-wives, to daily aches and pains, to the war in Iraq, to the big box stores crowding out the local marketplace.

"What could they possibly need to buy that they can't get already?"

"What I want to know is where are they getting their spending money?"

"I just wonder where they're getting their rent money. I could use some rent money."

Rent money's a big topic here, where no one is wearing a velour jogging suit.

"We talk about everything," Franklin said. "It's a place to go when you need to be around people."

She learned that the hard way a few years back, on Sept. 11. She was almost to the shop that morning when she heard of the terrorist attacks on her car radio. (An '84 Land Cruiser with a rusted-out tailgate, almost as easy to parallel park as a yellow Hummer.)

"Whitefish was like a ghost town," she remembered. "The streets were absolutely empty. I thought I would just go in and put a note on the door saying we were closed."

But then the fire chief showed up. Then the judge. Then the former chief of police. Then the regulars. The place was packed by 9:30 a.m., "and most of these guys all had fresh haircuts already."

They had come to talk, because at the Clip Joint there's no appointments, and here you can count on the wait.

"A shop like this really does serve a purpose," Franklin said. "It's where people go when they really need somebody to talk to. That day, it was a horrible day to start with, but it turned out to be a very good day for everyone who came in. We all needed each other, and we found each other at the shop."

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