EL REWIND: Arkie's Barber Shop
I am, to my wife’s frequent chagrin, a creature of habit. As exhibit “A”, I have had my hair cut nearly exclusively at the same place since 1971. Although my current bald state might argue for the irrelevance of haircuts, I still return.
Arkie’s Barber Shop opened its doors nearly a half century ago, in September of 1965. Founded by Arkie Risenhoover, a mischievous and friendly transplanted Arkansan, the shop was in a (then) new strip mall just east of Coral Gables. As his daughter Karen Hand, who joined the shop in 1982, describes it, “they had a hard time, at first. There were horses grazing in the lot across from the front door.”
That same year, Bill Irrer, a taciturn and gentle soul from St. Johns joined, and stayed on until his retirement just two years ago. Duane Stoolmaker, an amazingly spry octogenarian originally from farm country near Durand, rounded out the original three when he signed on in 1971, and is still part of the crew.
Although the area has been almost completely rebuilt several times in the intervening years, Arkie’s shop remains. It is very much the town barbershop, and not surprisingly, one with a strong Spartan flavor. It has long been the choice of locals, including many Michigan State coaches and faculty members (like my father) who found, and still find it, a sensible and friendly haven.
Pictures of coaches, (most autographed) all the way back to Biggie Munn, line the long wall opposite the mirrors and chairs. They mingle with posters of MSU sports, revenue and non-revenue, and with famous sportscasters who have graced the chairs over the years.
It has also long been the haunt of political leaders who live on that end of town. At risk of name-dropping, in my misspent boyhood in state politics I stood a better chance of spotting the Attorney General at Arkie’s than downtown. I soon learned that it was often the first place to learn what was really happening under the dome, and to hear it first.
It’s not a place for trendy, or flashy. It is solid, it is traditional, and it is very . . . Midwestern, in the best sense. It’s the place my father could take me and know that a squirrely five year-old would be met with gentleness and skill. And where my wife could take my sons and feel as much a part of it as I do, or my sister take my nephew for his first haircut. The wood paneling, the copies of sporting magazines, the smell of shampoo and fresh soap are ways to hang on to a slice of the best of the past.
Arkie’s is traditional, but by no means resistant to adaptation, though. In the mid-1960’s, most barber shops “worked the shears” as their mainstay; flat-tops, buzz cuts, and neat, short hair. As the sixties progressed, Arkie and the other partners saw the handwriting on the wall – learn to cut and style longer hair, or risk extinction. They all learned to razor-cut, to layer, and keep up with the styles of the day.
“Almost half of the old barber-pole shops closed in the late sixties,” Karen Hand explains. “They couldn’t adapt, and lost their customers. My dad was always able to keep ahead of things.” The change and adaptation continues; very recently, the shop added Tom Willett, a two-decade veteran from Haslett. It is also one of the only shops around to work by appointment, making it a preferred choice for time-sensitive professionals.
My father first took me there when I was five. It was close enough to our home for us to bicycle in decent weather; the eponymous Arkie cut his hair in the rightmost chair nearest the door, while Bill cut mine in the center spot. My father moved over to Bill’s chair when Arkie retired in 1995. My father and I no longer went in tandem of course, although betimes we’d meet there by serendipity. Over the decades, Bill became almost a third member of the male part of our family; he’d never fail to ask after my dad, sincere in his care of and for him, and interested in the goings on of our family.
At my father’s memorial service, there in the receiving line, stood Bill, quietly coming out of retirement to pay respects, humbly. Like family.
Arkie’s is located at 4984 Northwind Drive, East Lansing (517) 337-9219
Open Tuesdays-Fridays 8-5; Saturdays 9-1 by appointment.
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