(Hugh Campbell provides a haircut and banter with regular customer Ken Montero. Chloe Simpson/The Capital News Service)
BY CHLOE SIMPSON
THE CAPITAL NEWS SERVICE
If it wasn’t for the spinning white, red and blue barber pole, one might easily pass right by one of the most historic locations within the Richmond city limits. Tucked into the E. Franklin Street side of the Hotel John Marshall, The John Marshall Barber Shop is a living time capsule of Richmond from 1929 to the present.
Opening on Oct. 29, 1929, the day the stock market fell, the shop has managed to withstand the great depression, the closing of The Hotel John Marshall, displacement during hotel renovations, and many other ups and downs within the city.
Most of the shop’s success can be attributed to owner and manager Hugh Campbell, who bought the shop in 1987 after working there for 20 years.
“I went to barber school to get a deferment during the Vietnam War, to get into the Air Guard with some friends of mine,” Campbell said. “That’s the only reason I went to barber school. I got off of active duty and then I had 18 months to get my apprenticeship. … I asked a guy one day ‘where’s a good place to cut hair for 18 months?’ he said ‘John Marshall Barber Shop.’ I walked in, and my boss, Mr. Hicks, called me two days later and said, ‘you want that job, young fella?’ I said ‘what the heck, I can do 18 months.’ And that was 50 years ago.”
Campbell never intended to make a career out of cutting hair, and though he has been successful in doing so, he does not consider what he does to be work. When his friends and clients ask him about any plans for retirement, he responds that he would have to go to work first for that to be possible, a sentiment he passes on to his staff.
“Never make it work,” Campbell says. “Enjoy being here.”
And watching Campbell work, it is clear that this is something he truly believes, not something said just to rally his troops.
As he cut the hair of Ken Montero, a regular at the shop since the 1980’s, it is quickly obvious that their relationship is much more than that of client and barber.
Campbell and Montero immediately begin teasing each other about parole officers and aliases for the week, as well as the “sheep shearing” Montero said he needs. But their friendship has a sincere side to it as well. Montero is also eager to tell stories of Campbell’s successes and good deeds, as well as point out the wall of fame, which features some of the more recent Virginia governors to frequent the shop.
“We’ve got some characters up there, but they’re all good though,” Campbell said. “… We’ve done them all since 1929. The first one I did was Albertis Harrison. … I was nervous, man. A governor in my chair? … now all I get is people like this [gesturing to Montero]. It’s different than it used to be.”
Though times have changed, and Campbell no longer takes on any new clients, including politicians, he has worked hard to maintain the original 1920’s charm and design of the shop.
The mirrors, floor and built-in shelves are all original. One thing Campbell truly wishes had been kept were the original chairs, but he has stayed true to the shop’s history by keeping the chairs that were brought in in the late 1960’s, built-in ashtrays and all. The two small flat-screen televisions are the only sign that it is 2018, and not the 1920’s or 60’s.
“We have a special place here,” Campbell said about the chairs. “It has a special history and I wanted to maintain it. And it’s nothing like it.”
The barber shop also offers a limited menu of services, like those that would have been offered in 1929: haircuts, shaves, shoeshines, beard trim and men’s manicures.
In the 89 years that the shop has been open, numerous celebrities from Elvis Presley to Brock Lesnar have visited. However, state and local politicians have provided the most steady stream of clients.
Campbell said traffic picks up when the General Assembly is in session, with legislators and lobbyists coming in for services. And though he admits it can get contentious when legislators from opposite sides of the aisle are in at the same time, he assures that it is always in a fun way. He also can’t help but compare the newer legislators to those he saw when he started in 1967.
“They come in, ‘I can’t believe you voted for that,’ ‘well I had to…’” Campbell said. “But that old school was so different than the new school. …it’s different but not in a bad way. There were real characters you had back then.”
The joking relationship Campbell has with clients like Montero is not exclusive to the shop’s non-political clients. Campbell happily showed off a bottle of Trump Wine that he had gotten and placed on his desk, just where former Gov. Terry McAuliffe would be able to see it while getting his hair cut by Campbell’s employee, Kim Cogbill.
Campbell says McAuliffe called him out, commenting, “Hugh, what are you doing? That isn’t funny.”
McAuliffe is a loyal client of Cogbill, who cut his hair for his official portrait. An autographed copy of the portrait hangs on the shop wall by the clock, and McAuliffe also gave Cogbill her own copy that she keeps in her home.
Cogbill has worked in the industry for 33 years, but has only been at The John Marshall Barber Shop for the last five.
“I love [the shop]. If I would have known 20-30 years ago about this place I would have come. But I was always West End/Short Pump.”
As Campbell reminisces about his 50 years at the shop, he still finds it hard to believe he has made a career out of something that was supposed to be an 18-month gig.
“I still don’t know how I got here, and that’s the honest truth,” Campbell said. “I’m glad it happened though.”
“We are too,” Montero replied.