Story by Gary Baribeault
When you think about a small town, about that overall vibe and the standard fixtures of that image, there’s a short list of things that come to mind. A historical placard located near the town’s center, its inscription recalling days gone-by, perhaps chronicling the birth of what you see around you. Hopefully there’s a coffee & pastry shop that’s not a national chain. On occasion they might still have a Mom-n-Pop corner store. The fire house doors are sometimes located right next to the police station. My mind conjures up the image of a barber pole quietly spinning, next to it an old wooden and glass door with an “OPEN” sign hanging from it. You don’t get much more small-town than that.
In Rochester we’ve got one of those, it’s called “Town Square Barber”.
Once you’ve reached that old door’s brass handle and push your thumb down on the latch, you step into a bit of the past. There are only two barber chairs here, both of them red. Both of them looking as rustic as you might expect. There’s an equally rustic round mirror on the front wall attached to a swivel arm – so you can check yourself when you get up from those seats. A jug of lollipops rests on one of the counters, ready for that fidgeting youngster to successfully complete his inaugural torturous trim.
The floors are kept tidy, the ceiling has that painted white tin motif, the walls are clean but not empty. Cat
chy sayings on signs, suggestions of days long past create the atmosphere here. Straight razor shaves and moist hot towels are an image the old-timers remember. Back then buzz-cuts and flat-tops were the order of the day, but now you can get just about anything within reason. At least that’s what owner Sue Erickson will tell you.
“Somebody once asked me, ‘why don’t you have a TV in here?’” said Erickson, who replied, “Because then we’d never talk.”
She’s not much for cell phones, websites, Facebook and the like.
“My daughters told me I needed to ‘be online,’ to at least have a Facebook page if I was going to succeed,” With an obvious, uninterested look, she continued, “I told them if that was the case, then they’d better do it because I wasn’t going to.”
Those things don’t impress Erickson, which makes sense. If you spend any time talking with her, that fact becomes plain instantly. It’s the traditions of an authentic barber shop that are high on her priority list, along with a reverence for those memories.
Two red Craftsman roll-a-ways store her implements of the trade. They also serve as a constant affirmation of what this place is all about. Sue is as old school as the profession she perpetuates. A Master Barber, she’s been cutting hair for over 42 years.
“I started at 18, right out of High School,” she shared, as she flipped the open sign over to closed and pulled up a seat right next to mine.
Just a few minutes before, I had the pleasure of watching her work as she cut the hair of a 6-year-old, getting him cleaned up for grammar school pictures the next day. He had a very serious face, focused on the floor in front of him and not saying a word. His father sitting patiently in the gallery of chairs against the back wall, watching intently. You could tell this young man wasn’t particularly interested in being a participant of the activity at hand.
Sue proceeded to try and extract a conversation from the intense little patron to no avail. This was obviously Mom and Dad’s idea, not his. But being the consummate professional, she continued her one-sided discussion with him. Bringing up school, reminding him to smile tomorrow, and although initially rejected, she still managed to convince the lad that leaving the shop without a selection from the lollipop jar would be a decision he’d regret. His Dad shot Sue an appreciative smile as both father and son exited the shop through the front door and back out onto the street.
Despite its vintage charm, Town Square Barber is just eight months into its first year, but admittedly that limited time hasn’t been a problem,
“business is good”, Erickson said. As She tells it, people finding the place for the first time often say, “this is just what I’ve been looking for”, and she is more than happy to fill that need.
We sat there discussing her journey to this point, the late day sun now streaming through the glass storefront, casting its shadows, while an impressive eight-point buck on the wall kept watch over things.
“I decorate him for the big holidays, garland and Christmas lights in the antlers”, she smirked, gesturing up toward the brown eyed mount.
She continued on, describing the days of overcoming the British invasion, the Beatles and the long hair fads that drove some barbers out of business and turned others into stylists to survive.
A wash, cut and blow-dry became a norm for the seventies. In those days’ barbers still went to barber school and beauticians went to beauty school, different licenses and different shops once they left school to practice their craft. Master Barbers also had to learn the ins and outs of coloring and perms.
She reminisced about the years spent running Short Cuts with two friends downtown right next-door to the old Rivers Camera Shop on Main Street. That was after she had left US-Male — the “hip place” back in the day when long haired rock-n-roll was still a thing.
“There were 72 shops here in town at one time,” She informed me. “That was counting every stylist working out of their own home.” A lot of competition, but she managed to hold her own. An obvious accomplishment and a source of pride that was evident as we talked.
At her core, Erickson is driven by a sense of community, small town pride and a feeling of history while remaining close to her hometown roots.
“I like Rochester because it’s home, my parents and grandparents grew up here,” she shared fondly. It was easy to see how those roots and her passion for all of this keeps her going, keeps her grounded and permeates the very air you breath while in her shop.
We both could remember a time when the barbershop was a vital link in town communication. As a regular customer, the time spent sitting around waiting for your turn in the chair provided the perfect atmosphere for discussing the latest scuttlebutt. Whether it was fact or fiction, no topic was off limits. The only real factor here was directly related to who was in the shop at any given time. By the end of the day the barber they knew it all, good, bad and everything in between. Today Sue seems very comfortable with handling that immense responsibility.
“There’s nothing wrong with slowing down a bit and doing things old school,” she added. You could tell that idea was an important one to her as well.
Sue had another barber that was sharing the space with her, but for now she’s back to flying solo. There are plans for a gradual expansion, adding one or two more barbers down the road could eventually lead to a more “retirement job” approach for her, but not yet. She is in no rush and prefers a small intimate place over big and brash.
We finished our afternoon with a spirited and single-minded conversation, going over our hopes for Rochester and its downtown. We both agreed things are turning an important corner. A few more of the storefronts and buildings could use a facelift, along with the real determining factor of deciding on a specific identity again. Rochester is so close to having that becoming a reality. If you close your eyes and open them again quickly, you can almost see it.
If asked, Erickson will humbly insist there’s not much of a story here to tell, and in some ways she might be right.
No, she doesn’t have a sad story of struggle leading to a miraculous rising from the ashes. No hard luck, knocked around survivor tale, at least none she shared with me. The part she innocently overlooks, the part that makes this place magical in a lot of ways, is more tied to her quiet determination. The smile you can see when she’s interacting with a 6-year-old toughing out the first of his local birthrights. There’s an American apple pie, mid-summer baseball, Sunday-go-to-church easy feeling you get from the simplicity of these four walls. That’s her story, that’s the tale worth telling. That and the reality of a really great haircut.
There’s something very comforting in all of this if you think about it. Watching Sue work through her technique that afternoon, a cut here, trim there, it’s very calming to the soul. A bit more “old spice” and “slow squeaky ceiling fan” in its vibe. Those things can surely keep all of us grounded and secretly longing for more. Another brick in the “brick and mortar” of putting Rochester’s downtown back on the map, and that makes me smile.
So hey, “there’s a chair open” … who’s next?
Town Square Barber – 15 Wakefield Street, Rochester NH
On Facebook @ “Town Square Barber”
Feature & Photo’s by: G. A. Baribeault / 1st Crown Point Group LLC