A century-old Columbus institution celebrates its history—without romanticizing it.

You’d have to pass by more than once to notice it, but there’s something unusual about the old barber pole outside Clintonville’s Longview Barber Shop. Thanks to a long-uncorrected electrical glitch, each morning’s flip of a switch sends the lines spiraling in the opposite direction from the previous day. It sends its cascading red, white and blue lines up one day, then down the next, seemingly unable to make up its mind.

There’s a message here, intended or not, and it has everything to do with how and why Longview will celebrate its 100th birthday in January. It’s as if the pole is declaring that the shop’s remarkable longevity rides on the alternating current of past and present. Here is a barber shop that cuts both ways: down and up, forward and backward, embracing both now and then. It’s a remarkably enduring formula for success.

Jeremy “Nick” Nicklaus is my barber at Longview, where I get monthly cuts. Fourteen years ago, before he came to the shop, Nick gave me my life’s only straight-razor shave when I was the guinea pig for his final exam in barber college. There are many other Longview customer stories about present and past barbers in Clintonville’s oldest continuously operating business and Columbus landmark. After all, the shop has been in the small High Street block bordered by Brighton Road and Longview Avenue since Woodrow Wilson was president.

The first time I walked into Longview, knowing little about it other than its longevity, I expected blatant nostalgia: maybe background tunes from the ’20s or photos of black-haired men wearing that greasy helmet-head look that kept nervous hostesses reaching for furniture doilies. What I found, instead, were 10 youngish barbers, in their 20s through 40s, male and female, running a lively and quite contemporary business. There was longest-tenured Jeremy Dalton working quietly in the back—he’s the one that owner Dave Carty credits with the shop’s success—and Rob Cayson, who came in, years ago, nervous about customer reaction to a biracial barber, then saw 13 clients on his first day. Meredith “Merry” Gard sports a Buster Keaton tattoo on her upper arm, and Amy Jean Cornelius, who left a factory job in Marion for barbering, claims it’s the best thing she ever did. Six positions have been added since 2011, and the number of chairs has doubled.

Back in the 1920s, Longview had one “lady stylist” on staff. Now it has four women who are licensed barbers, two of whom also have styling licenses. They see lots of female customers, although they don’t offer chemical services, and cater to short and medium-length hair. There are lots of kids, too, which is not surprising considering Longview’s heavy investment in sponsoring school teams, plays and youth fundraisers. Carty loves to see grandpas and great-grandpas come in with their progeny to the place where they once sat on booster seats for their own first cuts.

Thus, Longview is no museum. Still, it is stuffed with artifacts. A 70-year-old photo of OSU All-American Les Horvath hangs above a ragged 1919 trunk filled with toys for 21st-century kids. Carty says the memorabilia comes and goes in an unending game of give and take among barbers and customers. One regular used to tease him about wanting to steal an iconic picture of Clint Eastwood hanging on the shop wall. When the customer later became sick, Carty had the photo sent to the man’s hospital room.

Living history

I cannot resist the romantic idea that a century of sound fades rather than dies in this traditional shop, the whispers of 10,000 voices wanting in on the conversations of today. Carty, the shop’s seventh and current owner, would probably smile tolerantly at such a whimsical thought.

“Getting to 100 has been a bit of a strain,” he confesses. For 21 years, 18 as proprietor, Carty has appreciated the history within these walls—but at this moment, he gently resists riding the entire venture down memory lane. It’s not the history that bothers him, but the way too many of us memorialize the past, rather than considering how to live with it in the present.

Take, for example, the shop’s vintage checkerboard flooring, evident in a 2011 picture but since removed. “You know, that floor was perfect for the customers,” he says with a sigh. “They were looking at the black and white squares head-on from the chairs in the waiting area. But we barbers were catching sight of those tiles from an angle all day long. By the end of the day I often had a headache.” His favorite memory of that flooring, he says, is of shooting video while his son helped tear it out.

Jim Pack, still lively and energetic in retirement, is the dean of Longview’s past owners. Pack, whose full tenure ran 38 years, including 27 as owner (1971–1998), guided the barber shop through the commercially precarious ’70s and ’80s as crises in American cities put urban shops on life support and paved the way for the creation of impersonal, quick-cut chain salons. When long hair on men became popular in that era, Pack didn’t pine for the good old flat-top days, responding instead with offers of free cuts for the longer styles. That sense for modern adaptability in the traditional shop has been a hallmark of Longview ever since.

Pack recalls the time a fellow barber “made the mistake of allowing himself to get involved in a poker game with a couple of underage teens in the back room.” The aunt of one of the teens got wind of the game and thought the Columbus police should have a look. The ensuing vice raid made headlines the next day, with a predictable lead about cutting cards instead of hair at Longview. A couple of barbers, not including Pack, spent a weekend in jail because of it.

A war’s silver lining

Founding a business that would last a century was not on Waldo “Tom” Pletcher’s radar in 1919. Like millions of other Americans, the 23-year-old was just trying to regain a foothold in normalcy upon returning to Zanesville after experiencing six months of horrors as a World War I gunner. He’d come home to a nation grappling with an influenza pandemic, and he’d discovered that his former barber position had not been held open for him.

Pletcher took a chance and moved to Columbus, where he was allowed the backroom use of Jimmy Kinnaird’s pharmacy to open a barber shop at Brighton Road and High Street. The economic times did not seem promising. But the aftermath of war offered a couple of silver linings.

Mary Rodgers, longtime president of the Clintonville Historical Society, has two explanations for Pletcher’s success. First, she says, thanks to their overseas service, many young men were used to having professional haircuts, as opposed to having them performed by someone in the family back home. Second—and this, I think, lies at the heart of Longview’s amazing success story—the war had quickly and permanently steeped those same young men in the only consistent virtue found in all wars: camaraderie.

The returning GIs, says Rodgers, needed a place to gather, and the barber shop offered such a place. In a nation starving for commonality and community, that is still no small thing.

Keeping history alive

It’s 8:15 on a rainy November morning when Bob walks in, the first customer of the day. A retired firefighter and a longtime Longviewer, Bob slides into a chair with an easy, casual air. He recalls a barber named Lake Brickey who would greet his customers while sitting in his barber chair and playing the banjo. Brickey’s young son drowned in the Olentangy River in a spot right near Bob’s fire station on Arcadia. Soon, Bob steers the conversation toward worries about possible changes to police and fire pensions that he heard about on the morning radio news. Any topic seems at home in this place.

And so the talk flows, like molten gold. As I strain to eavesdrop on the animated conversations filling the shop, the magic of Longview slowly dawns on me. There’s something real about this environment, a stark contrast to so many other public places, governed as they are by unwritten rules of eye contact avoidance and backs hunched in obeisance to the latest technology. Humanity is happening here. And it somehow seems as if it always has.

When I moved to the city in 1976, Columbus was celebrating the hard-fought victory that saved the Ohio Theatre from the wrecking ball. Here in Clintonville, Rodgers and the historical society are currently struggling to save the former Southwick funeral mansion, a corner of which once harbored runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. She hopes to help preserve that precious piece of history for present and future generations.

But, like Longview, these old structures aren’t being preserved as museums. Rather, they take their places among the living, earning businesses in today’s thriving community. The Southwick mansion is proposed as a venue for a child care center.

Here at Longview, hair gets cut. And the community conversation lives on.