- November 8, 2021
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THE first time I tried to climb up on Papa Joe Lopez’s barber chair in his shop in Merchant St,’s Stoney Hotel, I couldn’t make it. Joe grinned and lifted me onto a padded booster board. My legs dangled.
It was maybe 1940. I was maybe 6. For a 50-cents cut, Joe gave me a nickel back, just enough for a Creamery cone.
More than 8 decades later, last week I carefully climbed up on Barber Joe No. 3’s chair in his iconic Main Street shop. He didn’t try to lift me onto a padded board, but I didn’t take it personally. After a million trims, buzz jobs, ducktails and pompadours by three Barber Joes, and sometimes by sister Karen and her late sister, Janice, this was far from my first cut. It was our last–meaning mine, Joe Lopez No. 3’s, and the ghosts of barbers, stylists and straight-razor shaves past. I’ll admit I never had one of those.
Joe 3 has sold the Barber Joe’s family shop, and is retiring. That would make it a family business for 80-or-so years, one of the longest family runs in Vacaville. Our families go way back, likely one of the reasons why Joe invited me to be his final customer last Saturday before packing his shears and turning out the lights.
“I have been waiting for you for 41 years,” he said, the time he has worked as barber, and eventually shop owner.
I was beyond honored; happy for Joe but a little sad of another legend’s passing. Nothing is forever, but when something has been a big part of your life, all your life, it’s hard to let go, and see it end.
* * *
Another prominent Vacaville family is taking the showcase space from here. The McGuire real estate clan for years has focused on downtown spaces, with an eye toward preserving and building on them as a way to bring new vitality to our historic Main St. That has been their motivation, with considerable success. Three McGuire siblings have taken on the Barber Joe’s project. “We jumped at an opportunity to purchase the location,” said Shea McGuire, “seeing it as a win-win by helping Barber Joe move on to the next phase of his life, while we hold the space for a small business that wants to energize downtown.” That’s a plan.
For years after Barber Joe Sr. bought the building, several tenants shared the space—Pardi Meats, Gillespie Cleaners, a women’s salon, to name a few. In time, Joe Sr. expanded into the entire space.
THERE was more to the last day before signing off and sweeping away my silver strands. By plan, Joe’s sister-stylist Karen Lopez Grant came in to give Joe 3 his last cut. In his own chair. In his shop. In the shop of his father Joe, and grandfather Joe. It was a moment. It was the final act of a full life. It was a legacy. You could slice the emotion with a straight razor. Joe told me the last time he gave a straight razor shave was about 30 years ago. Another pandemic—Aids—ended it.
The day before my last cut, I stopped by the shop. A pensive Joe sat in his barber chair. No one else there, but he wasn’t alone. The paraphernalia and memories of four generations of barbering, styling and conversation mixed with perfumes and colors of his art, embraced him. His gallery of historical Vacaville photos will soon come down. It will take about two weeks to clear out. I asked, “Any second thoughts?” He smiled and pointed to his framed barber license, dated 1981, with his 26-year-old face. “If and when I do,” he said, “I look at that, and know that I did the right thing.” It has been a good life, Joe said haltingly. “Years of support by Vacaville friends and families made it so. They’ll never be forgotten.” Nor will Barber Joe’s for many of us. I paid for my last cut. And Joe gave me a nickel back.
TRAVEL is on Joe’s and wife Genny’s agenda. He’d like to visit the tiny village of Lubrin, Spain, where grandfather Joe and great-grandpapa Cristobal began their craft. Joe may want to stay awhile, open a barbershop on the Plaza next to the fountain and chorizo shop. He could argue politics, take three-hour lunches, two-hour siestas, cut hair if he feels like it, and give kids five Euro cents back.
The author is former publisher of The Reporter.
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