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Here’s a different kind of buzz
Written by Joe Awad   
Tuesday, November 13, 2012 7:31 PM

Perhaps you caught our recent human interest story on traditional barber shops? The idea occurred to me as I drove around Harrison looking for Americana.

I am enraptured with Americana to the the point of corny. That’s why I get away with using words like corny.

My curiosity got the best of me, so I hiked around the corner to the Barber Shop of Harrison, where I met a “gentleman and a scholar.”

There stood 66-year-old barber Tom Cottingham cutting a guy’s hair; another man was waiting, and two more entered in the short time we chatted.

The Barber Shop of Harrison has occupied the same space for 42 years. Think about that. Through all the hair fads for nearly a half century, Cottingham has been cutting hair in true red, white and blue fashion. The shop opened in January 1971.

“I’ve been the only barber here. I’ve never missed a day’s work in 42 years with the exception of 2004. I was working on my sign, and the ladder came from out underneath me. I crushed my left ankle - completely gone - and I crushed my right heal, so I was out from Dec. 7., until Feb. 14.
Those were tough times for the corpulent barber, who lost wife, Rose of 38 years to cancer two years before. Through it all, he toughed it out.

“I started when I was 18. I decided it was the way to earn my way through college. Barber school at that time took 7 1/2 months to get your apprentice license. But instead of returning to college in the fall, I got married, and I’ve been at it ever since.”

Wise choice
Cottingham had his sights on teaching biology based on the recommendation of a guidance counselor. Regrets? None.

Cottingham relates the teacher shortage in the early 1960s induced high school counselors to recommend teaching careers in batches.

“When I would have graduated from college that is when there was a surplus of teachers but there wasn’t a surplus of barbers, so I did OK.”

OK? I’d say. He began his barbering career in Hamilton, where he worked from 1965 to 1970. He now cuts and trims more than 25 noggins a day or about 225 per week, most of them attached to loyal customers and their progeny.

“You work at a business. You built it up, and you give your customers full consideration. I think it pays off. Loyalty begets loyalty. I’m very loyal to my customers, and they are very loyal to me,” said the graduate of the former North Dearborn High School.

“Ninety-five percent of my customers are very loyal. I’m working on the other five percent,” he said.

A guys’ place
The Barber Shop of Harrison is mostly a guys’ place. Cottingham cuts some women’s hair, but he is a barber not a beautician and has no qualms explaining the difference in historical context.

“There are two types of licenses, barber and beautician. They take a different approach. I specialize in cutting men’s hair, which is cut differently than woman’s hair,” he said.

Woman’s hair is cut in a textured, contoured fashion, and men’s in a smooth, straight manner, said Cottingham.

“It started with the longer hair. Barbers would tell the kid with the longer hair that if you want to look like a girl go to where the girls get their hair cut. And that was back in the early 1970s with 10-and 12-year-old boys. That’s 40 years ago. That 10-year-old boy is now 50.”

His hair is shorter, thinner and perhaps gray. Guess who is cutting it? “But I have young customers, all ages. The idea is to produce the work they want.”

A shave with a straight razor, hot towel and barber lather is no problem. Neither is trimming ear hair or that wiry stuff in a dude’s nose to get down to the nitty-gritty. “Shoulders up” is the barber lingo.

Today, Cottingham is remarried. He and wife Connie live on North Dearborn Road in Bright next to his daughter and her husband, three miles from the barber shop.

When not working 50 hours a week, Cottingham is golfing. His shop provides a small hint, plastered from corner to corner with golf figurines and other duffer decorations.

“I’m a golf-atter. My golf partners do not call me a golfer. ... I really enjoy golf. It is is a sport where honor still exists, more so than other sports. Of course, that is just my personal opinion.”

And to that I say barbering is a profession in which honor still exists. Of course, that is just my personal opinion.

Joe Awad is editor of The Harrison Press.