We first saw Al Soehn's barber shop just after returning to Chicago in 2009 after living for 10 years in other states. Finding a barber you like is vital to your mental health when you move, so I was very pleased indeed to see such a humble, traditional barber shop on a side street, tucked in among typical Chicago two-flats and frame houses, in the middle of our new neighborhood. The building looked like a converted garage, sitting on the alley between Leavitt and Bell at 2211 W. Grace (Grace is one block north of Waveland Ave.), about a mile and a half west of Wrigley Field.
"It's been a barber shop for a long, long time," Al told me. It was a barber shop when Al moved in, 41 years ago. "An Irish barber retired, and I took over."
Al immigrated from Germany with his family in 1956. You can still hear his German heritage in his accent, but he speaks English as well as you or I (better!). But for my first few haircuts, I wasn't sure. Al didn't talk much, which was fine with me because I have never been good at chatting with barbers. At first I thought he was a bit gruff, but later learned that he's actually a shy man, and very friendly once you talk to him.
And he cuts your hair with confidence.
The first time I sat in his chair (there's only one in his shop), I told him, "Short. Just barely long enough to brush. Shower-and-go." He didn't say a word but went right to work. Fifteen minutes later he dusted the cut hair off my shoulders, swept the barber cape off my front, and pumped the chair's handle to lower me to floor level.
"Twelve dollars," he said, and that was that. No hand mirror to inspect his work. No turning me in the chair to see myself and my new cut in the wide mirror on the wall behind me. I was done and didn't know what I looked like until I walked home and checked out my new haircut in the bathroom mirror.
It was perfect. I was ecstatic! An extremely skilled barber who worked quickly, didn't dictate to me about social issues or even what the Cubs should do, and didn't charge me a ridiculous price for "styling"! And only four blocks away.
The next time I went, maybe a month and probably a thousand customers later, Al said, "Same as before?" as I sat in the chair.
"Yep," I replied. And that was all. Another perfect cut, which I again confirmed in the bathroom mirror when I got home.
When you first visit Al, you get to know him by looking at the shop's walls. He likes to fish.
And he's a real Chicago guy.
"You knew Ron Santo?" I asked once.
"Not really. I met him when we got the picture taken, but didn't know him. But my son John worked for WGN and used to drive Harry Caray around. He'd stop here at the shop after games and Harry would raise his glass out of the car window and scream, 'Hey Al! How ya doin'?'"
After six or seven haircuts, we began to chat a little. Over the course of a couple years we watched a 3-story, 6-unit apartment building across the street become a single family mansion that looked more like a French mistake than a Chicago home. "They want 4 million," Al told me. End of conversation. The building stood vacant for 2 or 3 years.
Then one day I walked into the shop and he said, "You missed your chance. They sold it for 2.9 million."
"Rats," I said. "I got that much on me." Al chuckled. Maybe our longest conversation to date. This time I had driven to Al's from my job near Wrightwood and Clybourn, so I checked out my new hair in the rear view mirror. Perfect again. That was the last time I bothered to inspect his work.
As I sat in the chair a couple of weeks ago, guys kept coming into the shop and handing Al cards and wishing him well. Another guy came in and talked about buying the chair. Then I saw the sign on the mirror across the room.
"You're gonna retire?" I was stricken.
"Yeah. Not sure it's the right decision, but I'm gonna do it."
"What about the shop?"
"They're gonna knock it down. The barber shop and the building in front, too. They're gonna build single family housing. Come on by on the 29th. I'm buying some pizzas for my customers."
We stopped in during the morning of the 29th, and so missed the pizza. I asked Al about his retirement decision. Here's what he said:
"It's been a great run. A very happy 41 years. It's very hard for me to retire. But I'm turning 75 and I want to quit on top, and not have to walk out with a cane. I've had the greatest customers here. It's been a pleasure. It's not like a job where people go to work in the morning and say, 'Oh my gosh! I gotta go to work!' For me it was a joy."
He paused to give his young customer a lollipop. "Look what I got for you, big guy!"
If you'd like to learn more about Al and his shop, which, by the way, was called the "Magic Razor" (I had no idea until today. There are no signs.), there's a great piece written by Patty Wetli (click here) and a wonderful 7-minute documentary video by Karen Carter (click here).
Al was the perfect barber for me. We wish him nothing but the best and hope the fish are biting every single day.
But I got no barber and am in big trouble.
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