Columbus, Ohio USA
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Chris Turner: The Victorian Barber of High Street
by Karen Edwards
May/June 2017 Issue
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Chris Turner in his shop at 1249 N. High St. © 2017 by Gus Brunsman III
If you had access to a time machine, where would you go? Would you move forward in time? Backwards? Or would you leave it alone, believing there’s no time like the present?
Now, suppose you’re out for a walk one beautiful spring day and you happen to run across this little pocketshop on the north end of the Short North – at 1249 N. High Street to be exact. You look inside and you see something that looks like, well, like a Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium – a playful mix of science and art, of gothic and steam punk, of High Victorian and romance. What is this place?
Welcome to your time machine. Access granted.
Step inside and, on closer inspection, you see it’s actually a barbershop. Turner’s Barber Shop and Shaving Parlor has been trimming hair and straight-edging beards in this location for five years this month. But in truth, it’s been a barbershop much longer than that.
Set the dial on the time machine to the early 1960s.
The first barber
The shop looks a little different now. The name Turner has disappeared from the door. This is Jerry Langel’s barbershop and he’s busy styling his customer’s hair into the fashionable “rockabilly” style of the period. (Think Elvis Presley and his sexy pompadour.) Another customer flips through a Modern Motor magazine, waiting for Langel to trim the bangs of his Beatles-style mop top.
“Jerry was like a landmark in this neighborhood,” says Cathy Conklin, who, for years sold vintage clothes, especially wedding dresses, next door at her eponymous shop Katherine’s. “I think he was here for 45 or 50 years,” she says.
Langel, who is now deceased, worked here when rent was cheap, derelicts prowled, and the surrounding neighborhood was urban and gritty. There was none of the posh, cosmopolitan swagger of today – but it’s what enabled Langel to offer haircuts at rock-bottom prices.
“His prices drew customers from all over the city,” says Conklin. But Langel was also a “nice guy,” she adds. It was his chairside manner, in addition to the reasonable prices, that kept customers returning to his shop. “The customers were all men, primarily middle-aged and up. He only cut men’s hair,” says Conklin. “Well, once, he did cut my hair. I needed a trim, and he did it for me,” she continues, explaining the aberration. But the men Langel served were loyal, and they brought their sons to the shop for their cuts, and those sons brought their sons. “It was a generational clientele,” says Conklin.
In his off-time, away from the shop, Langel liked to restore old cars – a passion that showed up in his shop’s decor. “He’d have model cars on display all over,” says Conklin. No doubt, the small cars sparked their share of conversations. This was, after all, the 1960s when car culture was a dominant interest for men and boys.
Turner's Barber Shop, 2017 © Gus Brunsman III
But there was also another item in the shop that was a true conversation piece. “Jerry would come into my shop on occasion to say hello,” says Conklin. On one of those visits, he spied something he just had to have. It was one of those smiling butler figures, holding a tray. “Jerry asked me what I wanted for it, and we settled on a price,” says Conklin. The smiling butler became a permanent fixture of the shop, holding Langel’s business cards for walk-ins, passers-by and customers who wanted to make a referral.
For Langel, though, his shop was more than just a place of business. It was a social center as well – and an occasional oasis. Langel lived in Italian Village with his wife and a number of children – nine throughout his lifetime. “Sometimes, Jerry would go into his shop on Sunday when it was closed. He’d busy himself sweeping up, watching a little TV he had in the shop. Maybe smoke a cigar. I think he used it to get away from his family from time to time,” says Conklin with a laugh.
She says she misses Langel. Although Conklin has retired herself, she immediately cites one of Langel’s most endearing traits. “He was always smiling,” she says.
Now, slip back into the time machine and set it for the early-2000s. It’s still Langel’s shop. It still serves many of the same customers, with a few new ones added into the mix. One of those newer customers is Mike Edwards, a senior reporting analyst at Nationwide who found his way to Langel’s shop after his previous barber died. Edwards had been diagnosed with cancer (now in remission), and had come to Langel for the kind of bald-cut that would accommodate his cancer treatment.
Little did he know that his situation would create a sort of bond with his new barber. “I remember walking in one Friday and Langel immediately shut the door, locked it and drew the curtains,” Edwards recalls. “He had been having trouble with his hip, and had been cutting hair from a stool.” Now, he told Edwards, he had been diagnosed with Stage IV bone cancer. “He told me he wouldn’t do chemotherapy, but might do radiation. That’s not the way it works, however. You can’t do one without the other,” says Edwards. Within four weeks of Langel’s disclosure, Edwards learned his friend had died.
The next barber
Jerry Langel in 1986. © Jim Arnold ?www.jimarnold.org
Back to the time machine. This time, set the dial ahead, just a few years before Langel’s death.
There’s Jerry Langel, still working in his shop, and here comes Chris Turner, a young barber and manager of a small barbershop on Lane Ave. “I used to pass by Jerry’s shop everyday,” says Turner. It was while Turner was at a barber supply store that he learned Langel wanted to sell his business.
“I went in the next day and talked to him,” says Turner. “I told him I wanted to buy his shop.” And that was that. “I was in the right place at the right time.”
For awhile, it was just Turner, in his two-chair shop – and a handful of clients, some of whom he inherited from Langel. Mike Edwards – Langel’s cancer confidante –had moved on however. He found another barber closer to his home.
One day, while passing Langel’s old shop, however, Edwards saw someone inside. “I thought I’d give the new guy a try,” says Edwards. “It was still Jerry’s shop. This new guy was using his chairs, his cash register.” But he was sufficiently impressed by Turner’s barbering skills, that Edwards told him to give him some business cards. “I wanted to help him build his business,” says Edwards.
Now, turn the dial on the time machine again – forward a few years.
Jerry Langel in 1986. © Jim Arnold ?www.jimarnold.org
We’ve arrived, but you re-check the dial. Looking around the location you have to assume the machine has malfunctioned. This isn’t the present, is it? It looks like Queen Victoria is on the throne, not Elizabeth II. Believe it or not, it is the present day – but you can be forgiven if you think you’ve gone back in time, because, in a sense, you have.
Turner’s shop looks different now. There are five chairs instead of two – and four employees to help Turner handle his burgeoning clientele. But that’s not the biggest difference. Step inside and take a look around.
The shop now looks like the kind of place where Prince Albert (Victoria’s hubby) would feel right at home. A wood, paneled unit filled with hair product and Victorian-style knick-knacks fills a wall. Wait your turn in a row of plush-covered theater seats or in one of the tufted Victorian-style armchairs. Can’t decide on a hairstyle? Spend a few minutes at the portrait wall, filled with pictures of Victorian-era gents sporting the latest ‘dos. And if you’re the impatient type, you can stare at the encased Regulator – yes, analog – clock, trimmed with gilt. No digital clock here. There are a few weapons on the wall, a sword and a rifle, in case you need to settle a duel or defend the shop, and taxidermy animals as well. This is a real men’s den – or at least a Victorian version of it. “Chris told me he wanted to put his own stamp on it,” says Edwards. “He has. He’s created a real masculine environment.”
Still, you can ask for and receive not only traditional haircuts, but the latest, trendiest cuts as well. “Chris is much more up-to-date with hairstyles than Jerry ever was,” says Edwards. “Langel was old-school, he could do the buzz cuts and crew cuts. But if you want razor-drawn lines in your hair, Turner can do that.” And while years of experience made Langel what Edwards calls a “Wizard with a Blade” – “He could whip a beard into shape with a few strokes of that blade,” says Edwards – Turner offers a straight-razor shave that looks to be a far sight safer than those offered by another Victorian barber – Sweeney Todd.
In short, Turner’s is definitely not your everyday, modern-day barbershop. But then, that’s Chris Turner for you. The Victorian/steampunk vibe is all his.
He came by it honestly, of course. Turner grew up in Coschocton with an older brother and parents who both worked. “My mother still works in customer service at Sandcast, and my dad was the Coschocton airport administrator,” he says. Coschocton’s airport may be small by Columbus standards, but when you’re the airport administrator here, you do it all, says Turner, from ordering supplies to weather-checking and traffic control. Still, Turner’s dad always found time to take both of his sons to the local barbershop.
“We’d visit about every two weeks,” says Turner. That’s where Turner began his interest in hair and the impact it could have on someone’s appearance. “I was always particular about my own hair, even from an early age,” Turner recalls.
After graduating from high school, he knew that the career he wanted was barbering. Well, that or mortuary science. “I did consider being a mortician,” he says. (If you’re not up on Victorian trivia, just be aware that the Victorians had a huge interest in the macabre, gothic and paranormal. Think Edgar Allan Poe or Jules Verne.) Turner’s interest in the dead, however, had more to do with barbering history and science than the offbeat. “Early barbers were on the same level as surgeons,” Turner says. “They did bloodletting, they pulled teeth. Everyone knew that barbers had to have steady hands to shave, so when there was a surgery, the barber was often called on to assist.”
Still, Turner was looking for a career he could be excited about, “And I saw the trend coming,” he says. “I saw that men were becoming more conscience of their appearances, and were experimenting with hairstyles.”
It was enough to convince Turner to choose life over death, so to speak, so he came to Columbus and entered the Ohio State College of Barber Styling on Broad Street. After his time there, Turner went to work in the little barbershop on Lane Ave, but he knew he wanted a place of his own. The rest, as they say, is history. Literally.
In a sense, Turner has been in touch with history for years. Like Langel, Turner is attracted to the old, but to antiques rather than old cars. In fact, Turner and his wife Jamie (who also happens to share his birthday) used to deal antiques from a space inside Keens Furniture Loft in Merion Village. The items they sold were much like you would expect – high-drama Victorian items that were often medical or scientific in nature (like anatomical models and charts, and apothecary items.)
“I’ve been around antiques since I was a kid,” he says. His mom dated a guy with lots of antiques, and while Turner is drawn to most anything old, “I’ve always been intrigued by the Victorian Era,” says Turner. “It was a golden age with high style.”
If you want to take a quick trip to the Turner home, however, you’d better warm up the time machine. The Turner’s home is not decorated in Victorian style. “I’d say we’re now more into mid-century.”
Many young professionals are these days, and young professionals continue to make up the bulk of Turner’s business. Although he still sees some of Langel’s clients, Turner has developed his own regulars, primarily men, and even some women now, between the ages of 18 and 35 to 40 years.
“They find us primarily through word of mouth and social networks,” says Turner. And once in a while, Turner will open his doors for Gallery Hop. “We’re too far north to do the Gallery Hop on a regular basis, but we’ll do one occasionally. It’s usually tied to a charity event of some kind.”
Turner hopes that, whomever he serves, that person will walk out of his shop saying they experienced great service, an atmosphere that was comfortable and entertaining, and that they leave with the haircut they wanted.
“I hope they can say we changed their day for the better. I don’t think you can say a haircut can change your life, but if it makes you feel better as you go about your day, then I’m happy,” says Turner.
Back to the future
What’s next for the Victorian-leaning gentleman barber?
Set the time machine to the not-too-distant future.
“We’ll keep growing,” says Turner. He hopes to open a second location soon. “My wife and I own rental property. It’s our safety net, so our second shop may be in one of those properties,” he says. Like most entrepreneurs who operate businesses in the Short North these days, there are rumblings that the original shop may close. As more and more corporate businesses and developers move into the area, the Short North has evolved into something that’s a little less small-business friendly. It’s one of the prices of success. “It’s a double-edge sword,” says Turner. “You want to see more people and businesses moving in but that also means rent hikes which translate into price hikes.” As a rule, small business owners would like to keep their prices down. It’s what enables them to compete.
“Still, you never really know what lies ahead, do you?” asks Turner. Sometimes, you just have to wait for progress to settle in before you make a decision.
“Chris is resilient,” says Edwards. Once, a few years ago, Turner lost his entire crew of barbers. “They went into their own shop,” says Edwards. “Turner didn’t miss a beat. It took him about a week to bring in a new crew and build his clientele back up. Now it’s busier than ever. And he’s smart. He has brought in a diverse group of barbers because he understands the range of clientele he serves.”
So, if you need a shave and/or a haircut, or you simply feel like being transported back in time, step inside Turner’s Barber Shop and Shaving Parlor. You won’t need a time machine.
Just have a seat in the tufted armchair. Draw inspiration from the portrait wall. Wait your turn.
Chris Turner, the Victorian barber of High Street, will be right with you.
Turner’s Barber Shop and Shaving Parlor is located at 1249 N. High St. just north of Fifth Avenue. Hours are Monday through Friday 10 to 7; Saturday 9 to 4; closed on Sunday. Visit www.turnersbarbershop.com and Facebook or call 614-560-1238 for more details.
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