As an Austin native I usually cringe a little when people invoke the "Keep Austin Weird" slogan. "Really?" I want to say. "The weird you might be referring to doesn't exist anymore and hasn't for many, many years." Today's weird is all too often a hyped up, can-you-top-this contest that finds folks participating in the equivalent of a hipster beauty pageant. Truth is, weird is fine and great if that's who you really are. But if you put weird on like a pair of skinny jeans designed to lend you some sort of of faddy image, stop it!
But that's not the point here, so I'll quit with the weird bashing. In fact, I'll admit here and now that I'm not quintessentially weird. I'm weird-ish. Being born and raised here doesn't automatically bump up your score on the Weird-O-Meter. I know plenty, PLENTY of natives who are as normal and plain vanilla as humans can possibly come. And by God, we need 'em!
The slogan I might could buy in to is, "Keep Austin Austin." Of course that's not gonna happen, because Austin is constantly changing and growing (as most cities do.) And everyone wants a piece of the pie, which in plain English means "out with the old; in with the new." Last week my husband asked me if I'd been down South Lamar lately. "No," I told him. "Why?" It seems that there are high rises going up on either side of the Broken Spoke. In the name of commerce and progress, many Austin institutions have bitten the dust.** And lest you think I'm bashing the idea of people moving to Austin, I'll say up front that my husband is from California and I'm super grateful he landed here so I could sweep him off his feet.
Though old Austin is waning, there are still little pockets of pre "progress" paradise that are alive and well in the River City. A couple of months ago I took my dad to get his hair cut at Crestview Barber Shop, and I was absolutely smitten with the atmosphere. It was like walking in to a time warp. That day I vowed to return with my camera and spend the better part of an afternoon just observing and listening to all the stories that walked in and out of that place. Thankfully, Pam (the owner) and all of the wonderful people who work there were more than willing to accommodate me.
Truth is, most of my friends that grew up in the south have either a barber shop or beauty salon story. I used to go with my grandmother to Mr. Allen's Beauty Salon all the time. I can still remember the strong smells of perms, rinses, nail polish and hair color. And how could I ever forget the cloud of perfumey powder that clung to me when I got hugs from the old ladies? Mimi's hairdresser was a sweet young guy named Jimmy, who, looking back on it, was clearly gay. No wonder I loved him so much... he was always so cheerful and kind and happy to see me. The place was usually abuzz with stories; walking past all of the salon chairs was like changing channels on a TV. Once a week Jimmy would wash, set and dry my grandmother's hair. It gave her such a new lease on life, it was like watching her be reborn every single time.
There are many reasons I was transported back to those wonderful memories when I spent a day at the Crestview Shopping Center. I saw this snowy "Air Conditioned' icon all over the place when I was growing up, because it was a great advertising strategy. Not every place of business had air conditioning, and just like it is today, the Texas summers were brutal.
Some of the barbers work on a first come, first served basis. And honestly, I think that's part of the whole experience. You never know who you're going to run in to, or what you'll learn about them while you're waiting.
Roger is the longest veteran of the team (and I don't mean military veteran, though that applies too.)
He started Barber School in 1955, which means he's been at it for 58 years now. Here's his textbook.
These days he only works two days a week, but he gets a steady stream of regulars whenever he's behind the chair. He's known many of for a very long time.
This little gadget had me intrigued. It's a massager that sends vibrations through his hand (of course I had him try it on me.) This bonus service really isn't a bonus at all. According to Roger, it's a standard part of getting a haircut.
I also met 90 year-old Herman Haydon, who got a Purple Heart for his service in WWII. He was machine-gunned in both legs during D-Day, and was in the hospital for 16 months. All but one of the doctors wanted to amputate, but the one holdout prevailed and Haydon got to keep his legs. They have given him trouble ever since, but he's glad to have them!
They have lots of old equipment, some of which they still use. Not sure what this is but I think it's an old dome hairdryer.
If we've been even casually acquainted, you probably know that I'm working on an ongoing photo essay on feet. These chairs support a wide variety of folks, as evidenced by the feet that are perched on their foot rests.
This awesome guy showed up in his Scottish regalia. He owns several kilts and wears them when the mood strikes him.
Diane (left) is my dad's hairdresser, and also used to be my brother's when he lived in Austin. Pam (R) is the owner of the barbershop, and said she wouldn't trade it for anything.
Everyone at the barber shop encouraged me to go check out the Crestview Beauty Salon next door, and it did not disappoint!
This is Kathy Collins, who bought the salon from Mr. Lonny in 1973; she was 21 years old and has been at it ever since.
"Do people actually take these out and read them?" I asked. "Yes ma'am," Kathy replied. "Ladies borrow and read them all the time."
This totally cracked me up. LADIES: Are you trying to catch a man? Do we have the haircut for you!
Wilma Dusek was the original owner; check out the hot high school girl from McCallum. Why do teenagers from that era always look so much older than they actually were?
When I was a kid, shampooing was an art. Getting a scalp massage while getting your hair washed was pure heaven.
But what goes on inside the barber/beauty shops isn't the whole story. These two guys walked over and got some ice cream while dad (Brian Cox) got a haircut. He could see them through the window while the boys sat outside and enjoyed a sweet afternoon snack. It just reminded me of a time when my grandparents would give me some money and send me to the store on a hot summer day. If you got a dollar, you were so happy. If you got five dollars, you were rich. Best of all was when they said, "Keep the change!"
One of the most awesome stories came from Jarrod, who has been a barber at the shop for nine years. We sat outside while he proudly showed me photos of his children. His partner had two children from a previous relationship, and then the two of them got registered by the state to be foster parents. They are in the process of adopting a 12 year-old that was removed from a severely abusive home, and will probably adopt the older sister once she's received the care she needs. They also plan on adopting another baby. (For those keeping track, that's five kids!) These guys are the real deal; I was totally inspired by their desire to help children in need. (Speaking of children, as you can see on the right there's a reward for those that cooperate in the barber's chair!)
Crestview Barber Shop isn't just a place to get your hair cut. It's a way of life, one that I felt desperate to hang on to when I left. This is a no-façade zone, where people drop their creds or their need to be important in favor of just being human. It's also a space where someone is likely to see you for who you are, not just what you do. There is no hustle, no deal-making, no strutting, no hurry, no worry here. Just a bunch of good people sharing a slice of their day with each other. And it feels a little like heaven, in a weird sort of way.
** I polled my Austin Facebook friends to see what Old Austin institutions they miss most. Here's a running list:
Dobie Movie Theater
The Magic Mushroom in Dobie Mall
Nothing Strikes Back
Soap Creek Saloon
Mad Dog and Beans
The Raw Deal
The Americana Movie Theater (side note: my grandmother took me to a Billy Graham movie there one time and they issued an invitation to be saved at the end. You could walk the aisle and meet with a representative of the organization. And in case you're wondering: yes. Yes, I did.)
Valentines (a disco my friends and I used to frequent when we were underage!)
2J’s Hamburgers (I will never forget the special sauce on their burgers. Sometimes I still crave it. They had a carousel with trays atop the animals so you could sit on the “ride” and eat your meal (it moved painfully slow.)
And most recently:
All the stores in Lamar Plaza
Food Trucks on South Congress
If you have memories about any of these places, please share! I don't remember some of them.