Although it has barely moved in 82 years, the John Marshall Barber Shop has come a long way.
When the shop opened the day the stock market crashed in 1929, a haircut cost 50 cents. It lived through the Great Depression and three ownership changes.
In 2007, the shop was forced to relocate to a converted storage area across the street while the John Marshall Hotel was transformed into apartments. What was supposed to be two years turned to five when the recession set in.
After its extended displacement, the John Marshall Barber Shop finally reopened a few weeks ago at its original home on the first floor of the newly restored Residences at the John Marshall.
Everything that was old is new again at the shop. The mirrors, countertops and a polished marble floor are all original fixtures that were uncovered and restored over the past five years.
Owner Hugh Campbell, who has worked at the shop for 45 years and owned it since 1982, seems to have caught a second wind himself. The 66-year-old says the move has “recharged” him, and he’s excited to watch his business grow back in the same room where it launched eight decades ago.
Richmond BizSense sat down with Campbell at the barbershop on a busy Friday afternoon to talk about the business, the neighborhood, and the shop’s new look, including a piece of the renovation that Campbell had a hand in.
Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
Richmond BizSense: I get the feeling that cement handprint next to the door isn’t original. Tell me about it.
Hugh Campbell: That’s from about a month ago. That was the only bad spot on the whole floor, and they called me and said, “Come over, and let’s put your hand down.” So that’s my handprint and my initials.
RBS: You’ve been here for 45 years. What are some of the biggest names you’ve seen at the John Marshall Hotel Barber Shop?
HC: We’ve taken care of George [H.W.] Bush. Liz Taylor’s been through here. Bruce Willis was here. I still see [former governors] Gerry Baliles and Linwood Holton.
As you see on our “Wall of Shame” back there, we’ve had the pleasure of taking care of a lot of political people. And over the years, things have happened here. You’d have a Republican on one side and a Democrat on the other — I’ve seen things settled in this barbershop.
RBS: What kind of work did it take to get up and running across the street?
HC: You could have bought a nice, nice automobile for what it cost to build that little place over there. It was a storage area, and we had to put in the lights and electrical. We had to put in plumbing, we had to put a floor in it, we had to put a window out front — I couldn’t have been there without the window. We took some chairs, put a lot of them in storage and took the ones we could over there. We took the old counters that were here over there so we could use the same counters. It was an effort to do it, but they did it pretty quickly actually.
RBS: How did the move affect your business?
HC: When we first moved, my numbers had been falling anyway because I was in kind of a dead zone. Everything had moved away from the John Marshall Hotel.
Businesses were closing. The retail end of it was fading quickly down here. This hotel had run its course for its time from ’29 to about the mid-’90s, and it was starting to fall off a little bit. I thought we held on maybe a little longer than most, though.
I told [former mayor] Douglas Wilder some years back, I said, “You know, I looked around downtown, and the John Marshall Barber Shop was the anchor store.” We were it.
But we weathered the storm, and the folks that come through here hung in there with me in that garage. I’m talking about your Jim Ukrops, all the old Richmond people. The governors, Gerry Baliles, plus all the other business folks in this area hung there with me during all this adventure.
The business is down a little over 30 percent from six years or seven years ago. If I was a young fellow, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s only where I am in my life that I was able to pull this off.
RBS: Have you seen business pick up since you’ve moved back?
HC: Well, the business had bottomed out. But in the last three or four months, even across the street, we were seeing signs of life. You’re seeing a change here.
Over the last five years, we kept the core of our business people. But we didn’t have the walk-ins anymore. But now you look down at all the activity on the street — the top of this hill definitely has a lot more activity now.
The numbers are getting stronger. The response from the folks moving into this building has been strong. We’re getting folks out of that, and it’s all good.
RBS: How has the renovation changed the barbershop?
HC: I never knew any of this stuff was here. The shop had paneling and false walls before. My boss used to tell me that behind the walls they had gold counters, that there was a lot of gold and black ‑ they were the hotel’s colors. He told me all this stuff would be here, and when we pulled it all out, we restored it. That’s all the original mirrors and the countertops, the glass shelves. Everything you see now, it was here. You’re looking at 1929 when you see that stuff.
RBS: Has working in a residential apartment building as opposed to a hotel changed the business?
HC: It was a 500-room hotel, and it was busy all the time, but now with the residents you have that repeat business. I like it, it’s good. Every day, you have one or two come down.
RBS: What do you have planned for yourself and for the future of the John Marshall Barber Shop?
HC: I’m just going to enjoy it a while. My batteries are charged up a little bit. It’s something I’ve wanted for a long time, to restore this stuff, so I’m just going to sit back and smile and enjoy it.
The shop’s original location, shown in 2009, sat empty for five years. (Photo courtesy of Ansel Olson)