by Robert Powell
One of the hottest tickets in Richmond these days is for a black-tie affair early next year honoring an 82-year-old barber shop.
More than 330 people, including leading businessmen and politicians, have registered for the event, which will celebrate the homecoming of the John Marshall Barber Shop.
For nearly five years, the barber shop, owned since 1982 by head barber Hugh Campbell, was exiled to a cramped space in a garage on Franklin Street while its home, the venerable Hotel John Marshall, went through a series of starts and stops in an ambitious redevelopment.
Now, after a $70 million makeover, the 16-story hotel is about to be reborn as the Residences at the John Marshall, a 238-unit apartment building with 20,000 square feet of retail space.
The barber shop will return to the space it had occupied since the hotel’s opening in October 1929, the month the stock market crashed to begin the Great Depression.
The restored shop will look almost exactly as it did on opening day. Woodwork added over many decades has been removed to reveal the shop’s original mirrors, tile and granite countertops.
In its heyday, the John Marshall was the top hotel in downtown Richmond with guests that included Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley. The hotel closed in 1988, reopened in 1999 and shut down again in 2004.
In contrast to the hotel, the barber shop has never closed, but Campbell says recent years have been tough.
He estimates the shop lost 32 percent of its revenue since moving into temporary quarters. “There was no one on this hill. It was a dead zone,” says Campbell, who will turn 66 next March. “If I was a 30-year-old at the dawn of my career, I don’t know if I would have done it.”
He began to see a change last year as work progressed on the hotel’s transformation. “Every day I seem to be getting someone new,” he says. “There is more traffic on the street. We’re seeing things happen.” Campbell has been encouraging that flow of new customers by distributing coupons offering a first haircut at the barber shop’s 1929 price, 50 cents.
Only five blocks from the Capitol, the barber shop has long been a favorite of state politicians. A wall behind Campbell’s barber chair is crowded with signed photos of Virginia governors. “I’ve worked with many heads of state,” Campbell quips.
He also has met a wide range of famous visitors including boxer Joe Louis, actress Elizabeth Taylor and former President George H.W. Bush.
Campbell’s encounter with one celebrity, the jazz legend Cab Calloway, began awkwardly. Calloway called the barber shop, asking that someone be sent to his hotel room to cut his hair. “He said he was Cab Calloway, and I said, “ ‘Yeah, right.’ I thought it was a prank, but he wasn’t laughing,” Campbell recalls.
The barber phoned the front desk and found out that, indeed, Calloway was a guest. Then Campbell promptly went upstairs to apologize and cut Calloway’s hair. They got along famously. When Calloway left the hotel the next day, he had his bus stop outside the barber shop and toot its horn.
Over the years, Campbell has attracted a wide following with his easygoing manner and his ability to find a common bond with people from all ways of life. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been going to the shop since 1984.) Now his customers are vying for the chance to “roast” him at the black-tie event, which will be held in the John Marshall’s restored ballroom.
One of the people helping with the event, advertising executive and book publisher Steve Martin, says proposed remarks will be submitted by e-mail to a committee who will select the 10 best. “They get an hour to say things about me, and I only get 15 minutes to reply,” Campbell complains with a laugh.
In connection with the celebration, Martin is publishing a 168-page cookbook compiled by barbers Linda Henley and Ebony Talley from recipes submitted by shop patrons. The contributions include a lasagna recipe from George Allen, a Republican former governor now running for his old seat in the U.S. Senate. ”With Hugh and all the folks at that historic barber shop, one will get more than a great haircut,” Allen writes. “One can get common-sense wisdom and memorable humor.”
Oddly enough, Campbell had no intention of becoming a career barber when he joined the shop in 1967. In taking an exam to get his master barber license, he was scolded by Clarence Cox, a barber who had been at the shop since its opening in 1929. “You’ll never make it in this business,” said Cox, whose customers over the years had included Babe Ruth. “Number one, you’re too slow, and number two, you talk too much.”
Campbell has spent the past 44 years proving him wrong. “I love it, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
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