Why Crozet: The Modern Barber Shop, Since 1933

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Lisa Miller cuts the hair of Michael Dagner, 7. Michael likes days when he comes to the shop for a haircut. He once had his hair fashioned into a Mohawk for “crazy hair” day at his school. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

It’s important where we live and why, and the Gazette listens when citizens in and around Crozet express their thoughts about what makes the area a wonderful place to live. Besides plentiful water, clean air and beautiful views, people often name the long-standing small businesses that serve a clientele as varied as Crozet itself, including the Modern Barber Shop, a business and gathering place that’s been a Crozet landmark for 87 years. This is the 12th in a series.

Flat Top Boogie, Mid-Fades and the Return of the Mullet

Styles have come and gone during the nearly nine decades the Modern Barber Shop has been in business, and most have come and gone more than once, said Lisa Miller, the shop’s owner and the granddaughter of its founder, Vivian McCauley. 

Miller is well-equipped to handle them all. She studied traditional salon techniques at the International Beauty School in Charlottesville, where she discovered she was allergic to dyes and other chemicals necessary for the typical salon hairdresser. That was okay with her. Her destination after graduation was the Modern Barber Shop, where she’d already perfected her skills with clippers and scissors, working by the side of her father, Ray (“Pete”) McCauley.

The precise trimming and shaping required of the barber’s art is actually more difficult than the elaborate prom updos, subtle streaking and multi-level layering that goes on at the beauty salon, she said. “There’s no room at all to make a mistake when you’re working with such short hair.” That’s not to say that barbers don’t employ plenty of creative artistry at times, too, keeping up with the trends as well as executing a number of fantastic creations inspired by Hollywood stars and famous athletes.

As styles are recycled, they change a bit, she said. The slicked-back, one-length hair that depended on a healthy dose of hair oil was popular in the forties and returned in the ’50s with the addition of a duck tail in the back. Or—also in the ’50s—longer pieces could be combed up to form a jelly roll on top, leaving the remaining sides short or combing them back in a duck tail. Sometimes a few forward curls would be arranged on the forehead for a more glamorous version. The strangest request she ever knew about in the shop was for a “flat top boogie with a Boston block,” a style that combines the elements of a jelly roll, a flat top and a duck tail. It fell to Miller to execute this unlikely combination, but luckily her father was familiar with it and guided her through. 

Submitted photo.

Any of these would be more trendy than the routine haircut for the rural population the barber shop served, Miller said. “Most farm kids would come in early every summer and get a crew cut, easy to clean up and also to check for ticks.” Their older brothers and fathers would get a more grown-up version, perhaps with a flat top. Nowadays, most local people looking for the $18 haircut at the Modern Barber Shop are seeking an overall trim around the ears and in back, with a complementary tidying up of mustache (pre-COVID), ears and eyebrows. Although there are more beards around than ever, she can’t trim them right now because of mask restrictions, Miller said. “Men with beards drop by for advice, though,” Miller said. “I can kind of coach them through how to trim and care for their beards.” She notes the popularity also of the “soul patch,” a tiny triangle in an otherwise clean shave.

One surprising trend is the return of the mullet (the popular ’80s style with short hair in front, long in back) she said: “I think it’s because a lot of people don’t have to go into the office.”

The longer but fairly tidy “Beatles” look is still popular with teenagers, but the more adventurous among them may ask for a “faux hawk,” a less extreme Mohawk often seen paired with a beard on local hipsters; or the more moderate fade or mid-fade, an enduring style. A trend arising in the ’90s was “etching,” cutting lines into the short side hair of a fade, usually done as a sign of membership in a group, like a high school football team. 

Not your father’s Mustache

Mustache preferences seem to arise from nostalgia, Miller said, popularized by a series on Netflix or a best-selling movie. She has a couple of loyal aficionados of the handlebar, but observes they’re generally squeamish about anyone interfering with the precisely-waxed upturn at the ends. It’s more likely that she’ll just start them out in their handlebar journey, trimming the middle and leaving the ends long for them to fashion as they prefer. Likewise, there are die-hard fans of what she calls the “jailhouse mustache,” where the ends extend all the way down to the sides of the chin. More common is the neatly trimmed mustache, paired with a well-kept goatee, she said, or the full-blown frontier-style beard inspired by COVID-19.

There have been some eccentric fashions in hair during the 87 years the Modern Barber Shop has been in operation, but Lisa Miller, pictured here with her late father, “Pete” McCauley, said she’s always welcomed the chance to be creative. Submitted photo.

Women are welcome

Women in the know who want a well-cut wedge or other precise short style patronize the Modern Barber Shop: “I get at least one woman in here every week,” Miller said. The geometric haircuts popularized by Vidal Sassoon in the ’60s substituted expert cutting for the rollers and hair spray required by other current hairstyles, and have never entirely disappeared. 

One sad duty Miller accepts with great sympathy is shaving the head of a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy. She recognizes it as a traumatic hallmark of the disease: “Usually, it’s the woman’s husband who arranges it,” she said. “I have them both come in after the shop is closed. It can be a really hard moment.” She also helps women wanting to donate their hair to be fashioned into wigs for cancer patients, she said. 

“Singeing” was in demand by fashionable clients of the late 20th century. Ray Page (“Pete”) McCauley was sometimes requested to perform this practice to relieve frazzled hair of split ends. Submitted photo.

She’s cut the hair of several women who have been growing it all their lives, having them stand so she doesn’t have to bend over or sit on the floor as she cuts. “Still, I have to sometimes kneel down to make sure it’s even when it hangs straight,” she said.

Somewhere back in the cupboards of the Modern Barber Shop are some small wax cylinders, the tools used in the ’70s for singeing women’s hair. This was a 20th-century revival of a Victorian trend meant to relieve the fashionable woman of split ends, but it will surprise no one to learn that there were drawbacks. “It smelled terrible,” Miller said.

Unlike the general public, Miller is not one to make assumptions about anyone with an unusual hairstyle or imaginative facial hair. She welcomes the challenge: “It breaks up the monotony,” she said. 

It’s not just the haircut

Some long-held stereotypes are true, like the one about the town barbershop as a place to exchange information and local news. Sure, there’s some idle gossip, Miller said, but it’s more likely that she and her patrons will learn about who’s gone to the hospital, or has had their baby, or is sick at home, or needs looking after. “Many’s the time I’ve left here after work and carried a pot of soup to someone,” Miller said. 

But for the most part, the shop has been a center for cheerful banter and a relaxing escape from the outside world. Miller welcomes groomsmen from wedding parties, who appreciate the warm towels and smooth skin of a professional shave. In the early days, men delivering the peach crop to the cold storage at the railroad station looked forward to ridding themselves of the fuzz that attached itself to their hands and arms, and headed for the Modern Barber Shop while they were in town. “There used to be hot showers in the back, selling for a dime apiece,” Miller said. While they were occupied, local pranksters might spray their coats with perfume, or surprise them in some other way, Miller remembers. 

Submitted photo.

Her father had plenty of stories about eccentric patrons, such as the woman who asked him to shave her legs. (He said “no.”) Then there was H.D. Rea, a loyal patron, who kept his good humor when everyone called him “Buddha,” even posing for a photo with an image of the ancient teacher. And Miller likes the story about Merv McAllister, another patron, who served food next door at his establishment, the Crozet Pool Room (now Whistlestop Grill). The pancakes served by his breakfast cook were huge and, when McAllister took over the job one morning, people complained they had dwindled in size. Without missing a beat, McAllister reported that the establishment had just recently invested in bigger plates. 

Side by side as they were––and in the same building––the Crozet Pool Room and the Modern Barber Shop shared a lot of the same customers and also traded practical jokes, a tradition that was at its finest on April Fool’s Day. Pete McCauley especially liked matching wits with Karen Haynes when she worked at the pool room (she’s now at Misty Mountain Camp Ground) and attached a tiny “For Sale” sign on the pool room window early in the morning one April first. “It backfired,” Miller recalled. “People were calling us all day to find out more, and we were busy.” In retaliation, Haynes put a “For Sale, $500” sign on McCauley’s vehicle one morning. The proposed sale generated many phone calls until the barber moved the sign to Haynes’ car. 

Other stories are tragic: the shop’s founder and Miller’s grandfather, Vivian McCauley, was on his way to see Dr. Davis with what he suspected was a heart attack, but insisted on bringing Pete the money to open first. He died just as he reached the doctor’s office. Pete, Miller’s father, actually died in the shop. In hospice care for a variety of terminal ailments, he said he felt better when he was at the shop, even if he could only manage one haircut a day. He died in the shop in 2008.

Submitted photo.

Miller has a philosophical attitude about the deaths. She understands the desire of both men to remain part of community life, to spend their days with lifelong friends, providing a pleasant service in the profession she’s also devoted to. “There was nothing anyone could have done in either case,” she said. “Both of them died doing what they loved.”  

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