- October 18, 2021
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Ninety-year-old Bernard Lajoie, “Bernie,” the original owner of Bernard’s Barber Shop, is the only remaining living barber from Portsmouth that started in 1950.
Bernie frequently quipped that he was “allowed to clip the public.” Bernie reckons he has given tens of thousands of haircuts during his 40 years as a barber. Bernie says the local community was very supportive and generous during his career of “Keeping it well trimmed.” Haircuts were 75 cents when he first started. Bernie made an environment where every client felt important, friendships were made, generations of families would bring their children, offering an independent ear and a safe place to discuss any subject. Most important, they got quality service for a fair price. Bernie had minimal turnover. His barbers enjoyed working for him because he treated each one as his own family.
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Bernie says he’s seen his share of changes during his 40 years of barbering. He tried to stay true to the prevailing fashions and was always innovating. In the ’50s, it was G.I. cuts, flat-tops, and short crops. In the ’60s, hair got longer, so his shop did feather cuts, layering, colors, straightening and perms. Then short hair came back, with flat-tops, and crew cuts along with “mushroom” and bowl cuts.
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Bernie was born on the Cyr Plantation Potato Farm in Van Buren, Maine. When Bernie graduated from Van Buren High School, where he wrote for the school newspaper, “The Potato Chip.” However, journalism was not in Bernie’s future.
Bernie was drafted to serve in the Korean War, where he was nearly killed three times while on a night patrol in the hills of Korea. The first and second times were from bullets firing just above their heads. The third time, a mortar explosion hit the patrol unit. Several soldiers died and others had serious lifelong injuries. Bernie only remembers being lifted by the blast and when he came to, he was 20 feet away. As Bernie was picking out the hot shrapnel from his shoulder and arm, he was praying for strength so he could tend to the severely injured. Bernie was awarded the Purple Heart and discharged as sergeant first class, infantry medic. Shrapnel remains in his upper left arm today.
Bernie says he married “the most beautiful girl” in Van Buren, Theresa Michaud in 1954. While on their way to Connecticut, the honeymooners had to stop in Portsmouth due to Hurricane Carol. Bernie didn’t want to stay, but Theresa did. Theresa felt Portsmouth was a pleasant change from living on a potato farm. Bernie temporarily worked at Pease Air Base when it was being built and for Ralston Tree Cutting. With no secure income and expecting their first child, Deborah. Bernie’s prayers were answered when he figured cutting wood and cutting hair couldn’t be much different. So, he used his Purple Heart Korean War veteran G.I. Bill to learn the barber trade and business.
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With new skills, Portsmouth became his adopted city. His first job was at Madison’s Barber Shop in Market Square working for Leo Jacobs. Bernie purchased the business in 1962 when Leo Jacobs retired. Six months after purchasing the shop, on Friday the 13th, fire destroyed the entire Philbrick Block where his shop was located. Bernie’s prayers were answered when Charlie Dale, former governor of New Hampshire, offered him a space at 144 Congress St. Bernie renamed the shop “Bernard’s Barber Shop,” offering a full-service hair cutting shop. He added haircuts for women, children, and the homebound, along with full shave, shampoo, and hair styling for men, hairpiece fitting and servicing, and shoeshines. Bernie later moved his shop to 1 Middle St. in 1969 then to its current location at 90 Bridge St., where the shop is still named Bernard’s Barber Shop.
The first barber Bernie hired was David Grant in 1962. Dave told him that “He would never take another job or leave for any reason and will stay until his retirement or death.” Dave along with fellow barbers, Ray Gilbault and Wayne Folsom, purchased the shop from Bernie in 1996.
Bernie hired the first woman barber in New Hampshire in 1965. He received grave warnings that he was risking his business by alienating his male customers. Opening the door for women barbers instantly increased the shop’s clientele. Bernie soon hired his second woman barber and that soon grew to four women barbers. Several of them went on to establish their own successful hair-cutting businesses.
Bernie had a rule that his men and women barbers were not to date the clientele. Bernie had a couple of barbers that broke his rule. One of his women barbers, Donna Watson, dated and married me, Bernie’s son, Glenn said. The other barber was Suzy Koch, who dated and married Michael George. Bernie says rules are sometimes meant to be broken, especially when it involves genuine love.
Jim Canty, a longtime customer and friend, was Bernie’s last haircut on Dec. 24, 1996. Bernie continued to cut hair for homebound clients, nursing home residents, and hospital patients. Arthritis and tremors ended his ability to cut hair. These days, Bernie enjoys interacting with the public when he goes on his daily walk at Prescott Park with his self-made cane that has a rosary attached. He greets and converses with anyone he encounters, including tourists. Before going on his walk at Prescott Park, Bernie stops at the Immaculate Conception Church to pray for his family and anyone in need.
Bernie cherished the connections he made with the patients at Portsmouth Hospital when he was a Eucharistic Minister and Catholic chaplain. He’s a member of the Corpus Christi Prayer Group, Knights of Columbus, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled Veterans Association and American Legion. Bernie was also elected as the president of the Barber Association and a School Board member for Saint Patrick School.
Little did Bernie know that a one-night stay in Portsmouth would become his home to raise a family and an opportunity to establish a successful career. Bernie says his faith in God and the power of prayer gave him the strength to overcome the tests put in his path. Bernie says he’s been truly blessed to have been married for 62 years to the “the most beautiful girl” from his hometown. Bernie is most proud that he raised three children Deborah, Glenn and Kenneth into caring, loving adults that gave him more blessings with six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
Next time you’re at Prescott Park, look for Bernie walking with his cane wearing his Korean War veteran hat. Say hi and he’ll strike up a conversation that will be enlightening. He may even tell you one of his corny jokes.
Debra, Kenneth and Glenn Lajoie are very proud of their dad, Bernie, who taught them to persevere through the many obstacles they have faced in their life journeys.