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Long-time East Side barber closes up
Cliff’s Barber Shop is one of those places that was always full of regulars, quirk and charm, and where the haircut service provided wasn’t necessarily the only reason you’d swing by.
Rather, you’d also be there to catch a story, and to chat with your neighbors.
It’s been a community of sorts for the owner, Cliff Gebhard, and his customers.
Gebhard, 72, is a life-long East Sider, and has kept his barber shop at the corner of Minnehaha Avenue and Stillwater Road on the edge of Maplewood since 1968. He started cutting hair right out of high school in 1959.
“That’s all I’ve ever done is cut and talked,” he said.
He’s visibly proud of his timepiece of a shop, filled to just the right point with sentimental bric-a-brac: a Coca Cola fishing pole; a beard clipping hanging like an ornament; a postcard from Deadwood, South Dakota; and a “jackalope,” an invented cross between a jackrabbit and an antelope that his wife Val bought him in the Black Hills. Vines are draped in every direction. He’s got a bountiful cactus garden out front. He keeps a squirt gun handy to shoot water at any customer who walks in talking on a cellphone.
The place is his quirky second home.
For the last four months, his shop has been closed up, following some bad news.
Gebhard found out in May that he has stage four stomach cancer.
“That was a kick in the gut,” Gebhard said. “And then, to tell other people, and watch the reactions on their face... they had the same reaction I had: what do I do, how do I fight it?”
Since he found out, he’s been through eight rounds of chemotherapy treatment. He will soon be getting what he calls a new “report card” where he will find out how the chemotherapy has worked.
While treatment has slowed him down some, he’s not one to whine about it.
“So far I’m doing well, I can’t complain,” he said.
He was keen to visit and recount old times at his store.
East Sider George Saumweber, a regular customer, described the shop as “the antithesis of a hair salon.”
“When you walk in and see there’s two or three guys ahead of you, it’s not like ‘oh jeez, I gotta wait’ ... it’s like you’re going to be listening to Cliff’s stories... so you really don’t mind waiting.”
Gebhard’s known by many to be a talker and a teller of tales. He says that’s what got him into cutting hair in the first place.
“I figured I’d get fired from most jobs,” he joked.
He supposes he can do a decent haircut, but what’s kept his customers is the atmosphere and the conversation.
Mike Moreland said the jabber’s been what has kept him coming back for the past 25 years.
“Once you got to know Cliff, you wouldn’t go any place else,” Moreland said. “He’s an avid conversationalist and he was always a great barber.”
Gebhard calls his conversational skills “barber science,” or, B.S. for short. (It’s no coincidence that B.S. stands for other things as well.)
“You learn to talk,” he said. “That’s barber science, that’s what I did and I did it well.”
Moreland says he hasn’t got his hair cut since Gebhard’s shop closed.
“Eventually I’m going to have to make some kind of sacrifice,” and get a haircut someplace else, he says.
He recalled one story Gebhard told him over the years that stuck out -- he was at a church where some parishioners were baking cookies for a bake sale. Something went wrong with the spritz maker, part of it broke, and so a piece of metal had broken into the cookies.
The group didn’t know what to do -- they couldn’t sell the cookies if there was a piece of broken metal in one of them.
But then Gebhard saved the day, in a curious way. He went and got his metal detector.
He brought it into the church and waved it over all the cookies, until he found the exact cookie where the metal piece was embedded, Moreland said. “He saved the whole bake sale.”
Gebhard told fun stories, but he also got serious, and talked with clients about their problems. Many times he shut the shop down to have a sit-down with a client in trouble.
“They carried my load, so it was only fair that I carry theirs,” he said. “I loved that more than haircutting... to me (haircutting) was how I ate, and B.S. is how I lived.”
Another legendary tale of Gebhard’s revolves around dead Christmas trees.
Inspired by a Christmas tree lot full of dying pine trees, he took some of the dead trees and stuck them upright in the snow in the parking lot of the barber shop, with a sign saying “Cliff’s dead trees.”
The joke was well-taken -- “I had people stop by and they said ‘thank you, I had a really rough Christmas, and I saw that sign and I got a belly laugh,’” Gebhard says.
But it also turned on him.
“Damn if the customers didn’t bring trees into the shop.”
And a tradition was born. Neighbors would all dump their old Christmas trees in the lot. Some would even make it into the store.
“We would have an epiphany full of dead trees up here,” Gebhard said.
Even the church was involved -- folks from Eastern Heights Lutheran church where he attended would come dragging a large tree from there. One year, he called the cops on the pranksters. Rather than arrest the tree dumpers, the cops simply helped them out with the endeavor by providing them with scissors.
Gebhard was also known to drive around with a dead Christmas tree on the roof of his car, an extension of the same joke.
He’d put up signs at his shop anytime he went out of town -- “I would go to Las Vegas and it would say ‘I went to a financial seminar,’” he chuckled. “I went hunting, and it would say ‘Bam Bam Bambi!’”
Black Hills trip
Gebhard takes an annual trip to the Black Hills with his wife in the summer.
This year, his cancer treatment looked to be getting in the way -- he could no longer drive due to medications he was on.
But, one of his sons Tom stepped in to drive the couple this year, taking along Gebhard’s grandson.
The trip was an escape from the new reality of Gebhard’s illness.
They checked out the new corn palace in Mitchell, S.D. and went to the Badlands.
“We went way, way, way where the cattle run free and there’s no fences,” his wife Val said, “and went rock hunting.”
An old customer of Gebhard’s told him about a good spot to find some agates -- they drove out into roadless territory to find so-called “bubblegum agates,” rocks that look like used gum, but with some polishing prove to be rather pretty, Gebhard said.
“To me, the best thing about that trip was...” Val started.
“Getting to feel normal.” Cliff finished.
Not quite yet
George Saumweber was in for a cut on Gebhard’s last day open.
“He just told us and it was just stunned silence,” Saumweber said.
That day, a group of guys were “in a circle, holding hands and praying for Cliff,” he said. “It’s that kind of a place, where customers care so much about him.”
Gebhard’s not quite ready to give up his own shop. He figures he’ll wait and see what happens with his next health “report card,” and at any rate, the place makes him feel comfortable. Sitting in an old brown leather barber’s chair, he looks truly at home.
He said he didn’t realize how full of memories it was until his wife Val put together a photo album.
Coming to that realization, it’s hard to give the place up.
“I guess I’m just reluctant to let go and drop that last shoe,” he said.
Moreland, a cancer survivor himself, said he’d told Gebhard he was going to make it through the cancer.
“I’ve done a lot of praying, and I said the same prayers for Cliff.”
Gebhard’s hoping for the best as well, he said.
“The rest will have to be written. I don’t know what’s going to happen. We’ll see how it goes.”
Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.