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N.J. barber: 6 decades of 'treating people right'

Mount Holly Township recently honored Don Thompson, 80, who has been cutting hair at his barber shop since 1958.

Don Thompson at his barbershop in Mount Holly, where even the cash register goes back to simpler times. (CLEM MURRAY / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Don Thompson at his barbershop in Mount Holly, where even the cash register goes back to simpler times. (CLEM MURRAY / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)Read more

EVERYTHING about Don's Barber Shop in Mount Holly, N.J., is vintage - from the 50-year-old burgundy barber chairs to the old-style cash register that's been there 40 years, to owner Don Thompson himself, who has been cutting hair there for almost six decades.

"I got my first haircut there in 1979, and I started taking my son, Nicholas, 3, to Don's when he was 2 years old," said Jason Carty, 38, the fire chief of Westampton Township.

"The place is a pillar of Mount Holly," he said. "When you go there, it's like going back in time. Some of the artifacts on the walls are priceless. One framed article about the Relief Fire Company from the '50s includes photos of both my grandfathers.

"Everybody in Mount Holly has a Don story," added Carty, who said his son looks forward to "getting his hair cut, playing with the toys and getting a pretzel rod on the way out the door."

That down-home aura appears to be the secret to Thompson's longevity and success.

"It's treating people right, showing up on time and just working hard," said Thompson, 80. "I started out 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. five days a week, and I'm still in here five days a week but the hours aren't as long. I open at 8:30 a.m. and close at 5:30 p.m., and if somebody can't make it here, I'll go to their place. I used to do a half-dozen house calls a week, but now it's only about four a month."

It's clear that Thompson is strictly old-school. He's been cutting hair in Mount Holly for more than 60 years, and has been doing so at Don's since he bought the place in 1958 "for $30,000 and a handshake," he said.

He rents a rotary phone and accepts only cash or checks made out to him personally. And he has no plans to retire. "To be honest, I haven't thought about it," he said. "When I don't feel like getting up or I consider it a job, I'll quit. I like what I do, I like the people who come in, that's the way I work it."

Thompson, who lives with his wife in nearby Southampton, was honored with a commemorative plaque by the Mount Holly Township Council on Feb. 9 for his years of community service.

Over the years, he has sponsored more than 40 local Little League baseball teams. Photos and newspaper clippings about the teams grace the walls of the shop, alongside old shaving mugs and other memorabilia.

The place is filled with vintage tchotchkes like old house keys, foot lockers, a mounted elk rack, kindergarten desks with attached chairs and a framed photograph of Primo Carnera, world heavyweight boxing champion in 1933-34.

A vanishing breed

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Thompson is among a vanishing breed. The bureau estimates that only 640 barbers were operating in New Jersey in 2013. Nationwide, the bureau counted 52,100 barbers in 2012, but more than 611,000 hairdressers, hairstylists and cosmetologists.

It's unknown how many of the 52,100 barbers have been in business as long as Thompson. Single-proprietor barbershops providing personal service to a family of clients are increasingly rare.

"I don't know too many barbers like that anymore, somebody who's made a living for himself and serving people for almost 60 years," said Alex Zholendz, director of the American Barber Institute, in New York. "It's very rare to find someone who's immersed his whole life in barbering. I admire a guy like that, I really do."

Thompson, married with a son and two daughters and eight grandchildren, grew up in Burlington City, the son of a truck driver. He played football at Burlington City High School. He started to cut hair in 1954 and cut hair in the Army from 1955 to 1957.

Since 1958, Thompson has employed seven barbers, one of whom still works part time. Patricia Topham, 68, of Southampton, has been cutting hair at Don's since 1970. "He's very easy to work for," she said. "I've had a lot of fun working there."

A lot has changed since Thompson opened his shop. "When I first began cutting hair, people got haircuts a lot. The style was flat-tops, and I was real good at flat-tops. Fort Dix and Fort McGuire were nearby, and I got a lot of business. Then, in the '60s and '70s, men started letting their hair grow and I learned how to cut women's hair, which was short."

Thompson learned to cut with hair clippers but also uses scissors. He said clippers haven't changed much over the years but he doesn't give facial shaves with a straight razor anymore.

"I still shave around the ears, but I don't shave faces because it takes too long," he said. "I can do three haircuts in the time it takes to do one shave."

'Like your doctor'

Most customers who come to Don's are working stiffs: carpenters, plumbers, schoolteachers, cops. A few judges, too.

"He's very congenial and knows everybody," said Richard Alaimo, 79, who owns an engineering firm in Mount Holly. "I feel your barber is kind of like your doctor. You go to him, you trust him and you stick with the guy."

The feeling is mutual. Thompson doesn't see patrons as customers. "They're more or less friends and I got to know them personally," he said. "I looked forward to seeing them, and if I didn't see them for a while, the next time they came in I'd tell 'em I was worried they might be sick. And they would say, 'No, we were just out of town or on vacation.' "

On a typical day, Thompson said, he cuts "anywhere from 10 to 20 heads" at $13 apiece ($12 for folks over 60). He cut back his hours on Thursdays, knocking off at 1 p.m. because that was the only time he could get in to see doctors. Thompson has two artificial knees and is a prostate-cancer survivor.

How has he kept the business going through economic slumps over nearly six decades?

"When the economy got bad, I worked through it. I did everything I possibly could to get my name out there," he said. "I joined the Elks and the Moose. I did community service, spread myself out. I didn't waste money, so when times were bad I didn't spend money."

Thompson said he's probably never made more than $60,000 in a single year - even less today.

"The business has been good to me. I've treated people like I want to be treated and been fair and honest with them," he said. "I had a guy once who said he didn't like the haircut I gave, and I said, 'Well, that one's on me, then.' "