October 2, 2014

Elyria
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Putting up the clippers

Barber kept Elyria’s finest looking their best for 5 decades

For nearly 50 years, Elyria’s finest trusted Bob Vandemark to spruce them up with a straight razor, clippers and a pair of scissors.

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BRUCE BISHOP / CHRONICLE
Bob Vandemark cuts the hair of longtime customer John Morrison.

On Monday as Vandemark snipped away Monday at his Broad Street shop, he gave no hint that he’s retiring in just a few weeks. But he is, and he was in the mood for reminiscing.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years,” said Vandemark, 76. “Downtown used to be a beehive of activity — seas of people at JCPenney’s, Grants, Sears … Bell Co. The wives would go shopping, and the guys would stop in and get their hair cut.”

When Vandemark picked up his first pair of barber’s scissors, he was 27, an Air Force veteran coming back from the Korean War. He needed to use his G.I. Bill money, so he chose seven months of barber’s school in Akron.

“You started working in the free room,” Vandemark said. “Free cuts. The bums sleeping under the bridge — they were the best-groomed bums in town.”

After school he got a job in Chagrin Falls, but a year later moved to Elyria to work at the barber shop in the former Graystone Hotel on Broad Street. It was 1959 — Alaska and Hawaii had just become the 49th and 50th states.

Three years later, Vandemark partnered with the Graystone Barber Shop owner, and in 1973 he purchased the shop. A year after that, Graystone Hotel was torn down, but Vandemark kept the name and moved the shop to its current location on Broad Street.

He’s been there since — he and Val Jon Chizma, whose own barber’s chair has sat next to Vandemark’s for almost 44 years.

“I didn’t hire him,” Vandemark said, chuckling. “My former partner hired him.”

“Yeah, I hear about it every day,” Chizma said.

“I’ve spent more time with him every week for the last 40 years than I did my own wife,” Vandemark said.

“Yeah, but your wife deserved it — I didn’t,” Chizma said.

Vandemark sold the shop to Bob Waters three years ago, and it was renamed The Barber’s Blend. The place, for now, still oozes Vandemark.

He’s well-known for snipping the locks of the well-heeled in Elyria. 

“I basically have more of an older, classier clientele,” Vandemark said as he sculpted the salt-and-pepper hair of Elyria attorney John Morrisson on Monday afternoon.

His clients have neatly pressed shirts, pants ironed to where you could cut a finger on the creases, and hair that doesn’t look like it really needs cut. But they still keep coming through the door — haircut needed or not. Maybe they just come in for the conversation.

“You know the top 10 reasons why guys prefer guns over girls?” Chizma said. “No. 10: They can trade in an old .44 for a new .22.”

Chizma ran through the top-10 list, eliciting guffaws from the clients and Vandemark. It’s a routine they’ve had for more than 40 years, but it still works.

“And the No. 1 reason,” Chizma said, “that guys prefer guns over girls: You can always put a silencer on a gun.”

On Monday, somewhere between Morrisson leaving and Del Roig, 65, plopping down in the chair — every customer gets 30 minutes of care and conversation — Vandemark got to thinking about customers he’s seen over the past half century.

“I suppose the most famous person whose hair I cut, someone everybody would recognize, was J.C. Penney,” Vandemark said. “He had a nephew in town who managed the J.C. Penney downtown, and he stopped by to get his hair cut.”

James Cash Penney tipped Vandemark a quarter. 

“Yeah, he still has that quarter,” Chizma said, chiding Vandemark’s reputation for saving money.

Chizma didn’t stop: “He’s so cheap, he won’t pay attention. No … he’s so cheap, he won’t spend the time of day.”

But that’s what Vandemark is thinking about these days — how he’s going to spend his retirement.

He figured that his wife, Marilyn, will help him find things around the house to work on, little projects that’ll require time or money.

Chizma offered him some advice: “Hang on to your knees and hang on to your wallet, cuz they’re gonna hurt.”

“It just seems like it went by so fast,” Vandemark said. “You show up to work every day, and then one day, here you are.”

When he turned 65, he reduced his work week to four days. At 69, he reduced it to three days. At 74, he sold the shop to Waters but kept working two days a week.

“Now I’ll be at zero days a week,” Vandemark said. “And then I can say it like Sinatra sang it: I did it my way."

Contact Shawn Foucher at 653-6255 or sfoucher@chroniclet.com.