Noe Valley Voice December-January 2006

Local Gem: Of Barbers and Bears

By Kate Volkman

When Mike Skoufos first arrived in Noe Valley 53 years ago, there was a barbershop on every block of 24th Street. Now there's only one--Of Barbers & Bears, at 4137 24th Street--and Skoufos and his daughter Stephanie Smith, who owns the shop, are among the few haircutters in the neighborhood still calling themselves barbers.

Skoufos, who is semi-retired, cuts hair just one day a week, but he used to spend eight hours a day, five days a week, wielding scissors and clippers. His long career as a barber in Noe Valley started out in 1953 at Martin's Barbershop on 24th near Vicksburg, in the spot now occupied by Tamasei Sushi.

"I was the youngest barber at the time," he recalls. "I was 24 years old, and all the young kids all of a sudden found out there was a young barber, so I started picking up all the young kids." It was a good thing, too, because Skoufos wasn't sure about Noe Valley as a potential market.

"I came up here at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, looked around the neighborhood, and I thought, Oh, I don't know if I want to work here--it's very quiet," he recalls. "In those days, this was a working man's neighborhood."

But he stayed on to help Martin, who had just suffered a heart attack. After several years there, in the late 1950s Skoufos bought his own place at 24th and Diamond, naming it Mike's Barbershop.

At his new place, the younger set continued to keep him busy. Meanwhile, other barbershops started closing up. Skoufos explains that when long hair came into fashion, some of the local barbers refused to cut it. "They said, 'Ah, that's for girls. Boys shouldn't grow long hair....' I went back to school and learned how to cut long hair. So we survived."

He bought out old-time barber Johnny Baumgartner at 24th and Noe, and set up Mike's Barbershop in a storefront that's now part of Pasta Pomodoro. His daughter Stephanie joined him at that location in 1977, when she was 21 years old.

Stephanie Smith hadn't intended to become a barber--she was an art major--but she laughingly remembers that her parents told her, "If you're going to be an artist, get a trade!" So when a friend asked Smith to join her at barber school, "I said okay, because I knew you could work anywhere you wind up. It's a skill you can take anywhere." The skill is so transferable, in fact, that when Smith travels the country, she's consistently offered work. She says, "I've never visited a shop where I have not been offered a job right away." She credits that to her 30 years of experience and her unique skills--she's one of few present-day barbers who give shaves. And it's her shaves that bring her clients from near and far.

This Thursday morning, 88-year-old Richard Hervig, who hails from Iowa City, Iowa, sits in her chair. He's visiting his daughter Jonna in Oakland, but comes across the bay for the works--a shave, shampoo, and a haircut. Jonna is a violist for the San Francisco Opera, and her father is getting a kick out of telling violist riddles, and delights in the fact that the Opera's afternoon performance is The Barber of Seville.

As Hervig checks Smith's work in the mirror, he smiles and tells her, "You have restored my natural beauty." After Hervig pays for the haircut, plus a few dollars for tip, and takes his leave, Smith remarks, "All of our customers have stories. I like to hear them, so I encourage them. And some of them, like Richard [Hervig], they'll tell me all the stories."

Skoufos laughs and says the one difference in style between him and his daughter is: "She talks. I don't talk."

Skoufos, 77, and Smith, 51, have worked side by side for 29 years and report that in all that time they've had only one argument. Now, neither of them can remember what the dispute was about. "We have a lot of fun in here," Smith says.

After she joined him at 24th and Noe streets, together they moved to a new location at 24th and Church. That's when Skoufos decided to retire, at age 60. "So I gave the shop over to her," he says. "She took over the barbershop, and now I work for her instead of she works for me."

When they moved to 25th and Church, Smith changed the name to J&S Barber and Co., "J" being the initial of Smith's now ex-husband. After nine years, the owner sold the building so they moved again, this time to their current space on 24th between Castro and Diamond streets.

Smith named the shop Of Barbers & Bears as a way of promoting her art, which is designing and sewing teddy bears. She makes the bears mostly from old fur coats. As she explains, "Usually people inherit them from a family member. Fur coats used to be a real status symbol. So these furs meant something to people, but you get them, and who's going to wear them anymore?" So she transforms them into stuffed animals.

A number of mohair bears are on display in her window, but most of her fur bear orders are custom. She'll take a name embroidered into the lining of the coat and sew it onto the bear's foot, or use the lining from a pocket to make a hat. "I do a lot of customizing," she says. "Nothing is factory- or mass-produced.... Like being a barber. Every client is different, every head is different. You customize the cut to look different on each person. I don't think any of our haircuts are exactly the same, huh?" she asks her father.

"No," he replies. "It fits the client. We'll do crew cuts, flat top, short hair, long hair--whatever the client wants." Skoufas says one customer he's had for 50 years wants his hair cut exactly the same way every time. "Flat top with sides--long on the sides, flat on top. Fifty years and I can't get him to change!"

Father and daughter have a wide mix of clients--from Noe Valley oldtimers to children getting their hair cut for the first time. They see artists, cab drivers, writers, even former mayor Art Agnos and sons. They see families of three generations, many of whom have "never gone to anybody other than us," says Smith. "They've only had two barbers their whole life."

Brendan Glaetzer, 23, is one of them. He's been with Skoufos and Smith for more than 20 years. On a Thursday morning in late October, he and his father, Richard, are both booked with Smith, but since Skoufos is available, the elder Glaetzer takes a seat in his chair.

Father and son have similar thick curly hair, but Richard's is salt-and-pepper and Brendan's is dark. Skoufos and Smith set to work, standing side by side. It's a classic picture, as father and daughter cut the hair of father and son.

Kate Volkman is writing a series of articles on longtime businesses in Noe Valley. She also helps families and companies record and preserve their history.