Longtime barber still a cut up

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 4, 2003

While other businessmen his age are golfing or casting a line in a favorite lake's waters, Chuck Nelson stands his ground against growing older.

He's a barber. Always was, always will be. Just like a bartender, he's heard it all. He's a survivor. Trends, fads and fashions came and went, but Nelson hung in there and lived to tell about it.

No toddler climbing into the chair for his first haircut ever stopped him.

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"The secret is never letting the clippers touch their head. I keep it from doing that with the comb and then they don't fidget around in the chair," he said.

It's knowledge like that, as well as deft skills with his hands, a clippers, scissors, comb, hot towel and straight razor, that have kept Nelson barbering for almost 50 years.

"It'll be 50 years exactly next January," said the 72-year-old man.

"I told him as long as he stays around another 20 years or so, I'll be happy," said Jim Nelson, son of Chuck Nelson.

Dick Holgate, a part-timer barber at Midtown Barber Shop, may have Chuck Nelson beat by a few months. He is willing to concede that.

Right now, Nelson is excited again. He and his son, Jim, have moved into a new shop at 602 1st Ave. SW. Old Winona Avenue, it was once called.

The sign out front reads "Chuck and Jim's Barber Shop" and it is a souvenir from bygone days of barbering. It used to read "Arley Bliton's Barber Shop" in the golden days of barbering in Austin.

"Boy, how things have changed since those days," Nelson said.

He started cutting hair in 1954 and opened his own shop in 1958. He has had only three partners in nearly a half century of barbering.

He has worked in shops on the city's east side, downtown and back to the east side.

Tucked away next to Lefty's Bar at 421 1/2 10th St NE, the old Chuck's Barber Shop had legions of satisfied customers in the days when Austin had no less than 34 barber shops competing for men's attention, hair and whiskers.

A native of Blooming Prairie, Nelson and his wife, Doris, had three children. Leah lives in Eden Prairie and Jim in Austin. The third child is deceased. The couple has one grandchild, Leah's son.

"I remember helping in dad's barber shop when I was a teenager and listening to the great stories and seeing all sorts of interesting people," said son, Jim. "I didn't really decide to become a barber though until much later in life. In fact, I didn't tell dad I was going to barber college until I was done."

In fact, the father and son graduated from the same barber college in Minneapolis.

The son went to work for his father in 1997 in the tiny shop on the city's east side.

"It was so small, that our chairs would bump when we turned people around," he said.

The appeal of hanging out at his dad's barber shop was over-whelming to the younger Nelson and it provided some of the best story material for Jim.

"I never saw a woman in the barber shop in those days. Not a one. It was a man's world," he said.

Then, he remembered an even better story to tell. It's the one about being asked to hold a lion for a customer of his father's when he cut hair from the Austin Hotel across them the Mower County Courthouse in downtown Austin.

Suffice to say, the lion -- held by a logging chain -- was the pet of a customer, getting his hair cut that day. When the lion spotted a lady walking her dog, the lion started a big cat and dog fight while passersby watched.

"I guess I was destined to follow dad's footsteps and become a barber," the son said. "He's a good boss. Besides, he's got seniority on me, so I better be good to him. I like barbering a lot. You meet the most interesting people and everybody has a story. I've cut hair on everyone from boys age two to men age 106."

His father has a few more stories to tell.

Chuck Nelson started cutting hair, when men still sported their flat tops left over from the Korean War and before that, World War II.

When the Beatles arrived in the 1960s, barbers left. Nelson recalls six barbers who got out of the business then, because hair fashion was the long "mop head" style.

Things got worse when the industry was overwhelmed by the proliferation of beauty shops in every community and the number of women who cut men's and boys' hair.

Particularly bothersome to Nelson are the memories of the "frizzy" haircuts as he calls them, when men got permanents. Don't get him started on what that did to the barbering industry.

When Nelson first started barbering, a haircut cost $1 for adults and 75 cents for kids. Today, the prices are $11 for adults and $10 for kids. "If you were in the Cities, it would cost more. A lot more," he said.

The father and son team go back and forth with their stories as each relaxes between customers in -- what else? -- a barber chair.

The new barber shop is an addition to a residence along heavily traveled First Avenue SW. Large picture windows allow them to watch the traffic speed by until a customer arrives for an appointment.

Nelson said the large handicapped-accessible bathroom in the barber shop is there for a reason: the convenience of elderly customers, who also enjoy the ground-level access to the business.

There is space, plenty of space, and the tonsorial parlor's duo clearly enjoy it.

A truck pulls up and a man gets out and walks to the shop's front door. Both barbers rise to greet him.

Before settling the customer into a chair, draping the white bib around his neck and asking the timeless question, "A little off the sides?", the Nelsons have parting words. At least one of them does.

"I still enjoy it or I wouldn't be here," said Chuck Nelson. "Did you know we're the last barbershop in town to offer a neck shave with a straight razor?"

His son can only smile at his mentor and father, leaving one to wonder what kind of stories he could tell about the man the world knows and respects as "Chuck the barber."

Lee Bonorden can be contacted at 434-2232 or by e-mail at