OTTUMWA — Darrell Smith’s hands are steady and sure as he picks up his clippers and straight razor to begin his first haircut and shave of the day.
Smith, 88, has cut hair for 62 years and has owned Smitty’s Barber Shop on Albia Road for the past 58 years, but he doesn’t plan on retiring anytime soon.
“I haven’t gotten around to it yet,” he said.
Smith sees around 15 customers a day, most of them regulars. His straight-razor style of shaving which was so common at barber shops in the early 20th century has since fallen out of fashion except at those shops, like Smith’s, that have survived to this day.
May marks Older Americans Month, the theme of which is “Unleash the Power of Age!” this year. The month of appreciation, sponsored by the Seneca Area Agency on Aging, emphasizes the important role older adults play in everyone’s lives.
After coming home from serving in the U.S. Army during the Cold War, Smith decided to use the G.I. Bill to fund his education at barber school.
He went to the American College of Hairstyling for barbering in Des Moines in 1951, graduating after six months of school and an 18-month apprenticeship at a barber shop on Church Street. The building was built in 1927 and was a Shell gas station up until Smith converted it into the barber shop in 1955.
Earl Stocker, 82, has been coming to Smitty’s for 10 years and said he comes back again and again because the shave feels good and lasts a long time — and the conversation doesn’t hurt either.
“My dad was a barber, and he used to shave me with a straight razor,” Stocker said. “We talk politics, religion, everything else. We solve some of the world’s greatest problems right here. The U.N. should come to us for answers.”
Smith lives right behind the shop with his wife, Geraldine, who walks over Smith’s lunch every day.
“Some days I feel 88, but I’m in good health,” Smith said. “Clean living. I don’t smoke, I don’t drink and I don’t chase girls ... well, I don’t have to anymore.”
Geraldine joked that since her husband used to shear sheep with his father as a kid on his family’s farm 12 miles south of Ottumwa, that’s likely where he got the idea to become a barber.
Today, a $10 bill can get you a haircut and his smooth, clean shave will cost you $4. When he opened up shop, a haircut only cost a customer 75 cents.
Since he began, though, the leather used to polish the blade and the shaving brush used to lather the soap on the customer’s face have both been outlawed due to concerns about germs spreading between customers.
After lathering up Stocker’s chin, Smith heated up a towel and wrapped it around Stocker’s entire face for a couple of minutes in order to soften the beard.
“We had a guy in barber college who cut someone so bad they had to be taken to the hospital,” Smith said with a grin as he slid the razor along Stocker’s cheek.
But customers need not worry about any slip-ups from Smith. His hands are unfaltering, skillfully sliding the razor along face after face as he’s done for nearly six decades. He did say, though, that the hardest place to shave is right under the person’s nose.
Smith then patted some aftershave lotion on Stocker’s face.
“That makes him smell good so he can get in the house when he gets home,” quipped another customer awaiting his turn in the chair, Joe Miller Sr.
“You lived through it!” Smith joked as Stocker sat up with a freshly-shaven face.
Miller has been coming to Smitty’s for 20 years after his favorite barber in Batavia closed up shop after decades in the business.
“He’s quick at it, it’s reasonable and it’s a good price,” he said. “Darrell’s a real likable guy, he’s easy to talk to and he’s got some interesting posters on the walls.”
Customers gather in the one-room shop to “gab and gossip” about what’s happening around town and in the world, he said.
Normally, Miller uses an electric razor at home to shave, but once in a while he’ll head over to Smitty’s for the smoothest shave in town.
“Darrell’s the only person I would trust to do it,” he said.
Besides being open Tuesdays through Saturdays, Smith also makes house calls, as well as trips to Ridgewood Nursing & Rehab Center once a month for the past 30 years.
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