Other Voices – Fond memories of growing up in small-town Grass Valley
I read with interest the article regarding longtime barber Mert Austin (The Union, June 28).
The first commercial haircut I ever remember getting was done by Mert Austin at his old shop next to Dan?s subterranean shoe repair on Mill Street, circa 1952. My dad and I had a monthly ritual that involved getting up early on a Saturday morning and driving downtown to get our haircuts.
I”m not sure why it was always in Mert’s shop, but I can remember those days as part of growing up in Grass Valley.
The shop came right out of a Norman Rockwell painting. The old fashioned barber chairs were on the right side, and the leather chairs with the tubular chrome legs across on the left. A stack of newspapers, comics and the obligatory sports magazines was provided, and even a real barber’s pole was outside the door.
As Mill Street began to come alive, one by one the merchants would come out of their stores and perform the unfurling of the awnings ceremony. I could see Messrs. Collier, Beitz and Breuer crank the heavy cloth awnings out over the sidewalks in front of their stores. Pleasantries where exchanged and they?d disappear back into the shops. Tourists were nowhere to be found.
The haircutting had a style unto itself. I don?t remember how tall I wasn’t, but I needed a booster chair. Mert had one fashioned out of a piece of wood that sat atop the armrests and straddled the chair. Once perched, I had a bird’s-eye view. A favorite of mine was looking into the mirrors lining both walls to see what seemed like a million reflections of myself disappear into the distance.
Wide-eyed, I watched carefully as the Mert went to work. A youngster’s hair was one of the few cosmetics he has some control over and I didn?t want anything to go astray. As I watched the cut clumps of hair fall into my apron-covered lap, I always wondered if he was cutting too much off.
Much to my surprise, Mert would chat about all kinds of things while he plied his clippers.
My dad and Mert would talk about the strangest things. Like Grass Valley thinking of putting some kind of automatic stop light at the corner of Main and Auburn streets, or the proposal of turning the old dance hall at Lake Olympia into a skating rink. Yeah, right. Only in your dreams. They talked about the weather, fishing, lumber mills, local politics, and a lot of other stuff of little to no concern to a young boy.
When Mert would get close to finishing up my hair, he’d give me a hand-held mirror to check out his work. I could never quite figure out how to hold the mirror to look at the back of my head. I pretended to know what I was supposed to do, then once I gave the final nod of approval, Mert would spiff me up with the talcum powdered brush and finish off with a liberal dose of rose scented water massaged into my scalp. A piece of hard candy awaited me for staying still.
Some days we had visitors drop by, as by this time I was a self proclaimed co-owner of the shop. One I remember well was Bro Harris who, dressed in his familiar blue denim bib overalls with the signature black pipe hanging from his mouth, would shuffle in, exchange greetings, then plop down in one of the overstuffed chairs. Bro was a special guy; he didn’t have a job I that I knew of, and in today’s vernacular would be described as mentally challenged. He spoke in a loud voice using broken English, and had trouble staying on track with his thoughts. I noticed that neither Mert nor my dad would pay any attention to these physical limitations, and treated him as just another neighbor who stopped by to say hello.
After a few minutes, Bro would stand up and announce that it was time for coffee. Even before Bro finished his sentence, Mert had already turned around and opened the cash register by pressing the “No Sale” lever.
He’d dig out some coins, drop them into Bro’s cupped hand, and wish him a good morning. Bro would then trundle down the sidewalk and slip into the Blue Bird Cafe.
Then there was “The Car.” My mom worked as the Girl Friday under Capt. Blake at the CHP office, where Cranmer Engineering is today on East Main Street. And I dreamed of growing up to be a patrolman until the day I saw a brand new 1958 Oldsmobile drive by with Mert at the wheel. That was the year for chrome on cars and the Olds was no exception. I thought for sure that there must be a gold mine at the end of a barber’s rainbow.
Anybody who could afford to drive around in one of those beauties surely was in the right occupation.
When my dad got his haircut, I would bide my time by reading the comics. I wonder what ever happened to zillionaire Scrooge McDuck? You know, the one who lived in a three cubic acre money bin. My dad’s choice for a haircut? A flat-top, of course. When we finished we headed to Bunce’s Cafe to see if I could make it through a large stack of buttermilk pancakes.
Growing up in Grass Valley is one of the best memories one can have. It was truly a small town back then, but I guess smallness is a relative thing.
Going downtown meant waving at folks you knew and stopping to chat; it was a time to slow down and enjoy. Mert Austin made a good and lasting impression on me. So thanks Mert. Thanks for making this a great place to grow up. Thanks for giving me all those suckers after I got a haircut. And thanks for teaching me the Golden Rule, to treat others as I would want to be treated.
Dennis Babson is a long time resident of Grass Valley. He and his wife, Carole, live in the house that has been in the family since 1955. They share their home with three cats and Angel the deer slayer dog, whose primary job is to keep the wild animals away from the flowers, but has had mixed results.
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