Watching Bob VanAlstine cut a customer’s hair is entrancing. It seems as though his hands are on autopilot, allowing him to really listen to what his patrons are telling him.
And they tell him just about everything.
“Barbers are kind of like bartenders,” VanAlstine said. “People will come in and talk to you about their troubles and the good times. You get to know them maybe a little more than friends you associate with every day.”
“Big Bob” or “Barber Bob,” as he’s known to many of his customers, has been a bedrock business owner in North Branch since 1968, when he bought his first barbershop next to the old theater on Main Street.
Being a barber runs in the family; VanAlstine’s two brothers chose the career as well.
Bob’s Barber Shop moved twice within town, and is now located directly across the street from the first location.
During his 44 years of cutting hair in North Branch, the Rush City native has become an indelible part of the community. It’s hard to imagine North Branch without him, but come April 9, VanAlstine will be setting down the scissors and comb.
He’s decided to retire after nearly 50 years in the haircutting business.
Generations of customers
Those who have had their hair trimmed and beards groomed once by VanAlstine usually come back. He’s had customers who have been visiting him for decades. With some families, he’s on the fourth generation of patrons.
Friend since childhood and 20-year Bob’s Barber Shop customer Fred Meissner—in the shop March 20 for a haircut—joked he was one of VanAlstine’s “newer” customers.
VanAlstine noted he only spends a short time with customers, but that adds up over the course of years.
“You build friendships, even though you only spend 15 or 20 minutes with somebody,” he said. “If you do that once or twice a month for 40 years, you’ve spent a lot of hours with people.”
Some of VanAlstine’s favorite customers were the Rush City and North Branch high school athletes who would come into his shop in droves, especially around homecoming.
Back in the day when it was stylish to have short hair, some of the students would have VanAlstine give them a trim once a week.
Even when some of them moved away after graduation, they didn’t stop being VanAlstine’s customers.
“When they got those first serious girlfriends, they’d bring them in to experience the barbershop,” VanAlstine said.
Keeping the business going
John Perrin, the shop’s newest barber, bought the business from VanAlstine two years ago and plans to keep it going as Bob’s Barber Shop.
“Some people ask me if I’m going to change the name, and I ask them, ‘Why?”’
Perrin knows the name of the shop is as much a part of the town as its founding barber.
He, like others who know VanAlstine, sees him as more than a barber. VanAlstine has been cutting Perrin’s hair since he was 5 years old.
Perrin describes VanAlstine as a “father figure,” and when he found out he was contemplating retirement, Perrin made the decision to break away from a career he had been doing for 30 years to become a barber.
“I’d been in the convenience store business as a district manager or store manager, but then I made one of those 50-year-old midlife crisis decisions and bought the barbershop,” he said.
Perrin just didn’t want to see the business close when VanAlstine retired.
“(Buying the business) is something we always kind of joked about,” he said. When I was a kid (VanAlstine) would say, ‘John, someday all this could be yours.’”
When VanAlstine first started thinking about retiring a few years ago, he had imagined spending more time with his wife Kay, but it was not to be. She died about two years ago.
The couple had two children—a boy, Bob Jr., and a girl, Sharri. VanAlstine plans to spend more time with them in retirement and with other family members.
He has a brother who lives in California, so VanAlstine said he would do “a little traveling” to go visit him.
VanAlstine’s son lives with him, as does his grandson and granddaughter.
“I’m kind of the chief cook and bottle washer right now,” he quipped. “I’m fortunate to have them there. I’m not all alone like a lot of old guys end up being.”
What he’ll miss
VanAlstine admitted stepping away from the barbershop is going to be quite a transition for him, and he reminisced about the aspect of the career that he’ll miss most: the people.
He said he wanted to thank all of the barbers who he worked with at Bob’s Barber Shop: Jerry Hilgers, Bob Yaeger, Debbie Donahue, Elaine Paulson, Tim Cropper and John Perrin.
He’ll also miss the customers who confided so much to him.
“One of my older customers had passed away and I’m sitting in a chair in the shop and this attractive older lady comes in and gives me a big hug,” he remembered. “I had no clue who she was.”
Turns out, she was the wife of the customer who had died.
“She just wanted to thank me for cutting her husband’s hair all those years. It makes you feel good to know you were important to somebody.”