Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, Owen Manville is up at the crack of dawn to do what he's been doing for 50 years with no plans to quit: Cutting hair and meeting "interesting" people.
"I'm usually out of the house very quickly," says the 73-year-old Wisconsinite, who was born and raised in Sauk County. "And I don't wake my wife [of 50 years] because that wouldn't be a very smart thing to do."
After a short drive and breakfast in Reedsburg, Wisconsin, where he opens his no frills, one-chair shop at 7 a.m. (6 a.m. on Saturday), Owen settles in and gets ready to "hold court" for customers or passersby who just want to say hello and kill some time. Many of his "regulars" are in their 70s and 80s, one of them closing in on 90.
"A guy is lucky to have a job he enjoys," said Owen, who nine years ago cut back his hours and now works only until noon. He charges $7.75 for his work ($7.25 for seniors on Thursdays).
A person in his 60s feels like a young punk among many of Owens' customers, who know just about everything there is to know about everyone in this town of nearly 8,900 people. In towns the size of Reedsburg, smart money says you never want to doubt the old adage, "You'd better be careful where you drop your pants because before they hit the floor, folks on the other side of town will know about it."
The exchange of gossip in Owen's shop is never-ending except when interrupted by slightly off-color jokes that Owen says he thinks are found more amusing by women than men. Sometimes, if you're not careful, you'll find yourself listening intently to a "leg-puller" that you initially thought was a true story:
"God, it's just terrible," said a customer in bib overalls as Owen's clippers made their way up the back of his neck. "A good friend of mine is only in his early 60s and he's been widowed three times."
"What happened?" asked a waiting customer.
"His first two wives died from mushroom poisoning and the third from a fractured skull."
"A fractured skull? How'd that happen?"
"She wouldn't eat her mushrooms."
Owen's not aware of any one thing that inspired him to pursue his chosen occupation, only that he's always been interested in cutting hair. He dropped out of high school at 17 and joined the Air Force shortly after the Korean War began. Part of his tour of duty was spent "in the bush" at a radar station in Canada, where no one minded that no barbers were available because "nobody was around to see what you looked like."
After completing his military service, Owen returned to Wisconsin where he worked briefly for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad and hoped to enroll in the state's barber college. But because there was an 18-month-long waiting list in Wisconsin, he headed for California where he worked at Douglas Aircraft Co. at night while attending the state's barber college during the day. Two of his four children were born in the Golden State that—thanks to this nation's shortsighted and irresponsible immigration policy—has lost much of the luster that lured many Americans to settle there after World War II.
"In California you could enroll immediately in their barber college as long as you paid your tuition upfront," said Owen, who honed his haircutting and shaving skills in Los Angeles by "practicing on winos" who lived on Skid Row.
When long overtime hours became the norm at Douglas Aircraft as the Space Race heated up, Owen said he quit barber school three times because he couldn't keep up the pace of also working at three different barber shops that included cutting hair on Sundays (99 cents for adults, 25 cents for children.)
"But I came back each time and eventually finished the required 1,248 hours of training," he said.
After graduation, Owen returned to Wisconsin only to learn that the state didn't recognize his diploma, so he spent the next three years as an apprentice in a Madison barber shop that catered to a lot to professional people who, he said, he could have easily done without.
"A lot of those people liked to talk down to you," he said. "People in Reedsburg aren't like that."
His credentials finally recognized, Owen opened his own business in the basement of what then was Reedsburg's Huntley Hotel. When the hotel closed in the early 1960s, the owner sold all of its contents, including an antique cash register that Owen bought for $10. Made by the National Cash Register Co. at least a century ago, the well-used, hand-cranked machine similar to this one has served Owen faithfully in his current location just around the corner from where he had been.
"It doesn't work as well as it should," he said, "but I like the sound of the bell when the drawer opens."
When it was suggested that a small calculator would cost a mere $3 to $4 and do a better job of keeping tabs of his receipts, Owen said, "Yes, but it wouldn't have a bell."
People easily buy into the romanticism of being your own boss while operating a small business, but there can be some pretty rough times even for those who swear they love every minute of it.
When Owen began his Reedsburg business, he had no insurance. So two nights a week he would drive to nearby Hillpoint to earn extra money cutting farmers' hair in a small corner of a recreation hall owned by the town's fire department.
"When the farmers were in the fields, I'd be cutting hair until 1 a.m.," he said. "They'd ask how long I stayed open and I'd tell them it was OK to come over as long as the light was on. Then it was back in my own shop at 8:30 the next morning."
That routine went on for 15 years until Owen "burned out" and ended up spending a few days in a Veterans Administration hospital.
"It was a good job in Hillpoint and I enjoyed it, but thank God those days are over," he said.
Owen's Reedsburg shop was among several small businesses recently broken into during the night, and $80 was taken from his antique cash register. But the break-in and loss of cash isn't what sticks in his craw.
"I originally thought it was pretty damn funny that somebody would want to rob salon-type businesses," Owen said, noting that a hand-held hair dryer was stolen from a beauty shop. But when he discovered that the thief had made off with the bottle of Crown Royal he kept in his small broom closet, "Well, then it wasn't so funny anymore."