- September 1, 2021
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WOONSOCKET – When Donald Cournoyer Sr. began cutting hair in 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower was president and the U.S. was on the tail end of the Korean War.
The intersection of Hamlet Avenue and Manville Road, where Cournoyer runs a barbershop with three of his children, was stacked with mills, and workers would come at all hours to get their hair cut at one of four barbershops on the corner, according to his son, Don Jr.
“This whole area, everybody worked at these mills, bought food at these stores here, went to these barbers,” he said.
The elder Cournoyer, who grew up on Worrall Street, was 17 when he first decided to become a barber. He was at his local barbershop getting a haircut and watching the barber at work.
“He was shooting the breeze with the customers and talking sports and stuff and I said, I thought I’d like this,” he said.
Sixty-nine years later, he’s still here, cutting hair at Don’s Barber Shop four mornings per week. At 86, he said, customers sometimes ask him when he’ll retire, but he has no plans of quitting any time soon.
“I love the job. Truthfully. I hear so many people say I hate my job. I look forward to coming in every day,” he said.
Cournoyer started his training young, taking night lessons from a barber in the city because his parents couldn’t afford to send him to barber school in Boston. At 18, he went into the U.S. Navy and spent three years in the military. He worked stints at Foxborough State Hospital and at Ray’s Barbershop on Front Street upon his return, trying to save up enough to open his own place.
In 1965, he achieved that goal, opening Don’s Barber Shop in its current location on Manville Road. In the beginning, the shop took up only half the building, while the other half was occupied by Li’l General. His children eventually joined him in the business, with three of them, Don Jr., Donna and Debbie, currently working at the shop. Today they occupy the whole building, but Cournoyer still cuts hair out of the original space he opened in 1965.
“When I started in the early ’50s, it was all short hair and flat tops. And then in the ’60s it was all long hair, as long as you could grow it. That really hurt the business,” he said.
On a recent Tuesday morning, customers trickled into the shop, most heading straight for a particular barber’s chair. Many people, Don Jr. explained, found another way to cut their hair during the pandemic, and the business still hasn’t regained the customer levels it had before last year. The business lost two barbers, leaving just the three children and Cournoyer cutting hair four days each week.
Around 10:30, one of Cournoyer’s regulars, retired educator and WNRI host Larry Poitras, came in for a haircut. He asked for it short, prompting Donna to pipe up from the other room.
“You want one like my father’s?” she asked, gesturing to Cournoyer’s balding head.
“Not that short,” Poitras laughed.
Poitras said he used to visit Cournoyer with his father when he was 12 years old. At the time, he said, they’d go to the barber’s former home on Willow Street for a haircut.
“My father used to have a barber kit, he used to try to cut my hair,” he said. “And then when I became a teenager I became a little more fussy. I said, let’s go see a real barber.”
Cournoyer said he gets many regulars from Woonsocket, North Smithfield and Bellingham, Mass., as well as places further out. When another regular customer walked in, he asked if the man knew Poitras and discovered he was a former student.
“That’s what happens in this shop. You meet people all the time,” Donna said.
While the shop is still in the same place it’s been for 56 years, Cournoyer’s children said the neighborhood around it has changed. Customers, once filling the waiting room 10-deep after their mill shifts, now drive in from the suburbs. The people have changed, too, becoming more tense around politics and the topics of the day. While it’s always been an unspoken rule not to share your political opinions with the customers, Donna said, people now have trouble talking about their own views without getting upset.
“People are very angry about it. You can’t discuss two different views,” she said.
On Cournoyer’s side of the building, a quiet setup gives the impression the visitor has stepped back several years in time. On the walls, framed newspaper articles sit next to a signed photograph of Ronald Reagan and a picture of Cournoyer’s wife, Betty – a coal miner’s daughter he met while stationed in Illinois. Behind his chair, there’s a picture of a boy sitting nervously in the barber’s chair while a younger Cournoyer cuts his hair.
“This little kid here, I gave him his first haircut. And now he’s bringing his grandkids here,” he said.
Cournoyer said he sometimes offers customers advice, telling them to turn to God with all the bad stuff going on in the world. The only difficult part of his job, he said, is when things are slow and the day feels long. But mostly, he added, he loves his job and doesn’t have any disappointment with it.
“I never had that feeling. I consider myself lucky,” he said.
Congratulations on a very successful business Don! You first cut my hair when you were with Ray on Front St. The last time you cut my hair was in 1976. Life in the military took me away from the Woonsocket area after that. Always enjoyed coming to your shop. Don Desaulniers
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