Monday Profile: Dick the Barber
By Diana Ariza Klose
For more than half a century, Dick Denton has been cutting hair a shop at 1547 Webster Street. He (somewhat reluctantly) agreed to talk with a reporter on a very rainy winter day – while he’s working, since he is busy and has customers waiting for him.
Where do you live?
I live in Pleasant Hill. In 1962, when I bought my house, I couldn’t qualify for a house in Alameda, but I qualified for a house in Pleasant Hill. The difference in price was $15,000 – it was $15,000 (there), and $30,000 in Alameda, so I couldn’t qualify, I didn’t make enough money.
Where were you located before moving into this shop?
I didn’t have a shop. I worked for somebody else before I bought my own shop. In those days you didn’t rent a chair, you actually worked for somebody and they took taxes out of your wages. Today you rent a chair and they’re not involved in the taxes.
What made you come to Alameda?
I bought the shop. This shop has been here for 93 years, it was for sale, and I have been here for 52 years and two months.
Did you have any idea then that you’d be here for so long?
No, no. You don’t think about it, all you think about is you bought yourself a job.
I wonder if you had lots of doubts when you started out.
It was tough times. At that time I only had one child, and he was 6 days old when I bought the shop. He was born in October 9, 1958, and I bought the shop on October 15.
How many children do you have?
Are you originally from this area?
Yeah, I was born and raised in Oakland, so was my wife. I have two boys and a girl, and three grandsons.
You must have seen a lot of changes being here for so long.
Is there anything in particular that impacted you?
Well, you went from a military town back to strictly a civilian town. It’s not a military town anymore.
You must have cut a lot of flat tops in 1958.
I still cut a lot of flat tops, because I’m good at it.
And there is still the Coast Guard, right?
Oh yes, in fact I was just at the Admiral’s house Saturday, for a Christmas party. I get invited to his Christmas party.
Do they all know you?
Yes. A lot of them get their hair cuts with me.
A customer in Dick’s chair, a retired engineer who sailed his boat to Alameda, weighs in.
Jon H: Is it just very short hair, with a bit of sculpting?
Well you’d be surprised; they don’t wear the hair that short. Their hair is probably longer than yours.
JH: And then you went through the ‘60s when hair style was longer.
Oh, tough times, because I refused to be a hair stylist and do all that, and almost came to the point that I wasn’t going to make it. I was scratching my way through, and I made it.
Interesting, how styles could affect your business like that.
Well, I didn’t want to be a stylist. I went back to school for six weeks and there was 47 of us who took a hair styling class, and I finished second in competition, but I didn’t like doing it.
JH: And now you’ve entered an era when buzz cuts are common, like in the 50’s. Do you get many of those, or people asking you to shave their heads?
Well I don’t shave them. I just take it down with the clipper. I don’t do any shaving of the head.
Do you cut women’s or children’s hair?
Children’s, yes, boys, but no women, and I don’t do it because I don’t know how to do it. I’ve never cut women’s hair. The only woman I have for a customer cuts her hair just like a man, her husband’s a customer, and she had cancer and lost all her hair, and after that she decided to leave it short. She likes it that way, and it’s easy for me. She says: ‘It’s going to be no fuss no muss, it’s going to be just like my husband’s.’ And I said ‘Okay, I’ll cut it, because I don’t cut women’s hair, and I don’t want to start that.’
Of the people that come into your shop, what percentage would you say are steady customers that have come for years?
About 95 percent, or more.
Well, I’ll give you an example. Two and a half years ago I knew I was going to have a valve replaced in my heart. I took six weeks to tell every customer what was going on, and I took 217 names and phone numbers. When I knew I was coming back to work, I spent three days, two hours a day, calling 217 people to tell them I’d be back to work the next week. Eight out of 10, when they came through that door, said ‘Thank you for the phone call.’ That’s when I found out that people cared about what I did. Before that, I didn’t know that people really cared about me. Before that, I thought I was just here as a person who worked, and oh well that’s the way it goes, but that’s when I found out my customers cared.
Where do you get your hair cut?
In my garage.
Do you do it yourself?
No, I have a retired barber who lives close to me, and we cut each other’s hair every third Tuesday. We take 15 minutes for each one and we’re done. I never paid for a haircut in my life, because my dad was a barber.
Is that where your skills come from?
Yes. That’s why I never paid for a haircut in my life. Okay, there you go (referring to Jon’s haircut).
Did you ever think you would like to try anything else?
If I had to do it over again … hm, maybe I shouldn’t say this … If I had a to do over again, I’ve enjoyed doing everything that I’ve done, but at 74 years of age I would have been retired if I had worked for the government or for the city, or the county, or AC Transit. But at 74 I’m still working, because there’s not retirement involved.
JH: But you’ve had fun.
And I have season tickets to the Giants, and I need the money to pay for those too.
Do you have any plans for the future?
I’m just going to keep working until I can’t work. You could say this. This is Christmas time, and you can see what I give to every one of my customers (he shows me a large cardboard box with See’s Candies quarter-pound boxes, with a specially printed Christmas greeting from Dick’s Barber Shop).