The hair that hits the floor at West Hill Barber Shop these days is grayer than it once was. Customers don’t crowd into the friendly confines of Jerry Stump’s clip joint as they did a generation ago.
Or, come to think of it, two generations ago. He has spent the last 51 years in the same location.
But whether they’re sitting elbow to elbow reading Outdoor Life magazine and grumbling about politics, or Jerry and longtime associate Kay Akamine have the place almost all to themselves, West Hill remains true to the idea that the world is a little better place after a good haircut.
The neighborhood once represented a fine example of bustling, middle-class Las Vegas. Back when movie theaters weren’t mostly jammed into local casinos, the Red Rock Theaters stood across the street from the barber shop. Business was very good.
The neighborhood began changing long ago. You could call it decay, but that’s not fair. It’s more of what business hipsters would call an “incubator” of entrepreneurs with plenty of energy and not much money. From a geographical and population standpoint, this is pretty close to what might be called the actual downtown Las Vegas.
All that change goes on outside Jerry’s door. Inside, the model cars and humorous prints give the West Hill Barber Shop a small-town feel.
After service in the Navy — “I was a good-looking sailor back then,” he says — Jerry used $200 from his GI Bill to attend Utah Barber College, then apprenticed under his stepfather right there at 5110 West Charleston. He has been on duty, with Sundays and Mondays off, ever since.
Clippers for one noggin, scissors for the next. The 75-year-old Stump remembers a generation ago, or perhaps it was only yesterday, that the West Charleston Boulevard strip mall was a beehive of business activity, and the location of his shop was considered prime. But times have changed.
So have tastes in haircuts. He broke in with a lot of crewcuts, survived the ’60s and clipped his way into the big-hair of the ’70s. New generations of customers have increasingly been steered toward franchise shops such as SuperCuts, and as a reminder of the corporate competition, one of the company’s commercials plays on TV during our conversation.
The cue ball look hasn’t exactly been good for barbering, either.
“Nowadays they just shave their heads,” Jerry says, buzzing and snipping his way through hair going gray by the day. “I got one in boot camp. That was enough for me. You’ve got to be a tattoo artist now to survive.”
He laughs as easily as he blocks a neck line and tells the stories of a couple celebrities who’ve set foot in his shop.
There was Robert Goulet, a man with very nice hair. The singer didn’t didn’t exactly come a lot.
“He came in here once,” Jerry says. “I didn’t cut his hair. He was driving one of those antique cars from the Imperial Palace, and his car crapped out in front of the barber shop. He came in to use the phone.”
He laughs and adds, “I said, ‘I know you. You’re Wayne Newton.’ He said, ‘You sonofabitch. I’ll never use your phone again.’ We had a good laugh. He had a smile on his face.”
So did Don Rickles, a man with not much hair but an even bigger sense of humor. Jerry took a look at Rickles and said, “Anybody can cut your hair.”
Rickles laughed but wisely refrained from calling Jerry a hockey puck while the barber was brandishing scissors.
In the better part of an hour, Jerry talks about some of the business owners and newspapermen he has known. Most of the names are as yellowed as old newsprint. Along the way, he says he still enjoys his work and talking to people, but he admits he’s getting a little tired of attending funerals for friends and good customers. And it’s not just because it’s bad for business.
“You have to be half-crazy to be a barber, anyhow,” he says, ringing the sale and chuckling a little more. “If you write about me, just don’t make me famous.”
It’s too late for that, Jerry.
Besides, anyone who can still laugh after half a century in business has something more important than fame.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Contact him at 702 383-0295, or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith