Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Farewell to Joe the Barber

I was down at the Tavern the other night when Alex Booth (the mayor of High Street) told me that Joe the Barber had passed away. I had the opportunity to interview Joe a few years back. There was a detail that I did not put in my story because he was modest and didn't want people to know, but I think it's worthy of passing on now. He often made house calls to his elderly clients who could no longer get to his shop on Water Street.

Here's the story I did back then:

EXETER — There is no phone in Joe Fortier’s barber shop. You won’t find an electric razor either. Or the latest line of ocean mist shaving creams, hair gels or a fancy sink to shampoo his client’s hair.
The shop fills a tiny one-room area upstairs at 11 Water Street across from the Women Supporting Women Center. There is an enormous red barber chair that he has had since 1953, a leather strap to sharpen his straight razor, a manual cash register, a black and white television and small microwave.
And there is history—of the town, of the shop and of the days when Exeter had 11 barbershops, not four.
Fortier’s forte is a basic, old-fashioned $7 haircut. He has mastered the craft and after 50 years of cutting men’s hair in Exeter has a devoted clientele. Some have been going to Fortier’s shop since he opened, others for 30 to 40 years. They are no longer just clients, they are friends.
“It’s just an old fashioned barber shop the type of shop I went to as a kid and my father went to,” said Exeter resident Steve Dockery who has been going to Joe’s shop for 19 years.
When he hung up his barber pole outside 4 Center Street back in October of 1953, Joe was the youngest barber in town. Now, at age 74, he is the oldest of the four remaining barbers in Exeter.
“We’re an endangered species,” Joe said.
Joe’s first shop was a 4 Center Street, where his first client was his grandfather Albert Denoncour. He moved from Center Street in 1960 to 20 Front Street, where he stayed for 10 years. He moved from Front Street when the Indian Head Bank came in to 163 Water St., above the former Stone’s Store. He stayed above Stone’s from 1970 to 1982 when he moved to his current home upstairs from the former Batchelder’s office store.
A large picture frame in Joe’s shop has photos of each of his shops, a dollar bill from the first sale and the name of his first customer. He doesn’t expect to move again.

"This is the land stand or I’d have to buy a bigger frame,” he said.
Over the years, he has seen the downtown change and the old barbershops lose their popularity. He blames the Beatles for the decline in barbers.
“The Beatles came in and they got the long shape and everyone boycotted us,” he said. “That was always a constant battle with the kids.”
Joe, whose given name is Arthur, (although he’s always gone by Joe), is from an era in downtown that saw markets like Hmies—where locals went for fresh cut beef—and Ken Haley’s television shop where most people paid for a new television on credit, with no contract. They didn’t need one because Haley knew everyone in town.
Fortier offers his clients today exactly what he did when he first started up shop in Exeter: just a regular haircut, an ear to listen to their problems and the occasional barbershop humor—he hasn’t cut off an ear yet.
While it wasn’t so hard to find a regular hair cut then, it is becoming more and more scarce these days, according to Rudolph Bohne of Greenland. He drove around for several weeks looking for a regular barber. He doesn’t like barbers in Portsmouth because he always gets a parking ticket. And he really doesn’t like the new unisex salons.
“They usually have an agenda, they want to give you a shampoo first and I don’t really care for that,” Bohne said. “I just want a plain old haircut and he knows how to give a good GI (general issue) cut.”
Joe learned his craft in the Navy where he served for four years on the USS Roanoake as a barber for the crew during the Korean War. The senior barbers taught the younger shearers like Joe, who said his strategy was simple: cut the men’s hair like they asked.
“I had to live on board with them, I couldn’t have them hate me,” he said. “We shot the breeze all day long, it was just a social place.”
Even those getting a haircut were not excused from their shipboard duties. It was a common occurrence for men to hop out of the barber’s chair when they were called to their battle stations.
“There’d be about four to five guys on that ship with about a half a haircut,” Joe said. “You just had to get up as quick as you could.” The components of a haircut when Fortier started his craft were standard fare but now are a dying art form—the straight razor, the ear trim and even the eyebrow trim.
“I think I’m the last one in town who still does it, that’s a lost art really,” Joe said of the straight razor. “You just have to know how to handle it.”
When asked about the ear and brow trims one afternoon as he snipped loose hairs from Exeter resident Don Story’s ears, Joe’s rationale was simple.
“If he goes home and his wife sees hair in his ears, she’s going to say, ‘Why didn’t he cut the ears,’” Joe said.
“How’d you know that Joe,” Story asked.
“I know women,” Joe responded with a smile.
He has been married to his wife Olga for 48 years. They met at a dance in Newburyport.
“I said, “I think I’ll go and ask that girl to dance and she accepted,” he recalled. “She was blonde and pretty. Everyone went dancing. You used to look forward to Saturday night to go dancing. It used to be a good social thing.”
And for some, including Joe, going to the barber shop can be a good social thing.
“I’m having a good time. They aren’t customers, they’re just old friends,” he said of many of his customers who have been getting their hair cut by him for 40 years. “They tell me what’s going on.”
Dockery thinks of his haircuts as a form of therapy.
“Joe is not just a barber, he’s a friend, That’s what makes him like a therapist. You’re in the chair for a half an hour. You talk about everything from sports to personal issues to life in general,” Dockery said. “He knows everything that’s going on in this town.”
But while Joe knows all, he is mum on his knowledge, even to his wife. Sometimes his wife will ask him why he didn’t tell her about something when she finds out elsewhere.
“When it’s told to me it’s told in confidence and it goes no further, unless it’s humorous,” he said.
One small framed note next to Joe’s shop mirror stems from one of his humorous stories, which he will share.
The note says: “Joe, you have my permission to cut Charlie’s hair any way he wants, Andrea.”
Charlie, who was Charlie Deardorff, a Russian professor at Phillips Exeter Academy, kept asking Joe to cut his hair shorter and shorter each visit. Joe told Charlie his wife wasn’t going to like the cut. After several months of the back and forth between the two, Deardorff showed up with the note for Joe.
“He thought he was a big deal when he gave me that note so I went out and bought a frame and framed it,” Joe said.
He is also willing to give guests the history of the items in his shop including the mounted fish above his mirror that he caught in Kingston and his old silver soap machine. The machine makes a low hum when Joe pushes down on the top to make soap.
“This thing is an antique. I got that in ‘53 and it still works as good as the day I got it. Some day it’s going to go up in a pouf of smoke,” he said. “Three’s no sense in buying another one if it works.”
And for Joe’s clients, there’s no sense in finding another barber as long as he still works.
“I’ve tried the other barbers in town,” Dockery said, referring to a time when Joe broke his wrist and couldn’t work. “I told him he can’t shut his doors.”


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