Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Paul's Barber Shop: Iconic Hintonburg Personality


Paul Brisebois - Just as many of us will remember him.
This fantastic photo is courtesy of Mike Laflamme,
which inspired this article today.

There is a group on Facebook called "Mechanicsville of Ottawa" that is like an ongoing family reunion for long-time (and former long-time) residents of Mechanicsville and Hintonburg. Spend an hour or two reading through the photos and memories of these great people whose hearts are firmly at home in our little west-end neighbourhood, and you'll feel almost like you experienced the 50s, 60s and 70s all over again. About a year ago, one single photo posted by someone on the page sparked a buzz within the group that has yet to subside. Mike Laflamme posted a photograph of Paul the Barber closing up shop at his familiar location on Wellington Street, near the corner of Stirling. It was a simple photograph, but one that has clearly grabbed the emotions of many who view it, for Paul was a cornerstone of Wellington Street West for 45 years. Many of the boys and men of the area (and even some women) grew up in this shop; it was a part of their lives for so many years.

I consider myself fortunate to be in this group. My Dad was a loyal customer and I had all of my childhood cuts in the 1980s and 90s at Paul's. When Paul closed in 2004, we all found somewhere else to go, but he was missed. Though not forgotten by any stretch, seeing his photo brought back a lot of memories for so many; to be reminded of years past, and a great man of the neighbourhood. The popularity of that photograph inspired me to seek Paul out, and tell his story, and share more photos of this iconic Hintonburg personality.

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The building at the east corner of Wellington and Stirling has a history as colourful as any building in the city of Ottawa, and is well worth its own "Museum" post someday. Quickly, the block of stores that now appears as one contiguous building on the outside is actually three separate parts that have morphed over time. The western part of the building (Uproar and 4Cats Studio) was built in 1902 by F. W. Mahon as a grocery store. The portion to the east (Aljazeera and the Record Centre) was built in 1912 originally as a Baptist Mission. However in between the two was a little triangle of space, that in 1912 was constructed to essentially connect the two buildings together, and from the curb make it appear as one large building. That little triangle is the focus of this article today.

Appropriately the first tenant of the triangle at 1105 Wellington Street was a barber. Napoleon Paquette opened his shop in this space between 1913-1914, where he remained for a couple of years. It later became a confectionery, and then a shoemaker/shoe repair shop from 1924 to 1951. It served briefly as the amazingly-named "Zunder's Wellington Biscuiteria", and the equally-impressive "Farmer's Pride Kut-Up Chicken Store", before coming full circle and re-opening as a barber shop in 1956, operated by Mr. J. Alfred Denis.

Meanwhile, in 1958, a young Paul Brisebois graduated from Barber School in the Byward Market (called Bondy's Barber School, at 62 George Street). His brother Gaetan had attended six months prior, and was the barber for the family business that was attached to their family home in the east end near the National Research Council at 2036 Montreal Road (named the "Brisebois Barber Shop", it was a small "Smokeshop" with one barber chair).

Ottawa Journal April 8, 1967 (the only decent ad I could
find for the school, which had changed names since 1958
but was still in the same location). 

One day in 1959, Paul was getting a drive around town from his father, dropping in on barber shops and looking for a job. He visited Alfred Denis's shop, and according to Paul's wife Denise "made such a good impression that he was hired on the spot, and started work the next day from 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.".

Sadly Alfred Denis fell ill about a year later and could no longer work. He offered Paul the opportunity to take it over which he did. Paul's Dad financed him to buy the equipment from Alfred Denis, and thus in 1960, at age 19, he became the owner of the two-chair shop. He met his wife-to-be Denise soon after. Her brother introduced her to Paul, who lived in the same neighbourhood and attended the same Church, though she didn't know him or what he looked like. She cheerfully remembers thinking "Hey, 19 years old, has his own business, his own car... Jackpot!". Their first date was for her high school graduation that year. Sadly, Paul lost his father soon after of a heart attack, at the young age of 51. He had gone to the hospital believing he was suffering indigestion, but passed away during the night.

In the beginning, business in the shop was great, so Paul hired a barber for the second chair. At that time, Paul recalls the price of a haircut to be $1.25 or $1.50.

Denise recalls that Paul worked tirelessly during that period, 5 days a week, 10 hours a day, attempting to further build his clientele, and then doing the accounting in the evenings. He broke away long enough for them to get married on the Monday of the May long week-end in 1966. He took a few days off but had to get back to work.

Denise also shared how Paul had to adapt to the trends, including one which almost cost him his business in the 1970s: "Business was dropping in the mid 70s during the hippie generation with the long hair style.  His other barber left and Paul was also thinking of a career change." (She mentioned that he had applied for the contract for the shop at National Defence headquarters, and even at one time was considering becoming a bus driver). "However, business picked up again when brush cuts became the next style.  He was considered a very good barber for brush cuts.  To keep himself up to date,  he took men's hairdressing courses on his days off and attended several Styling events." She added that his clientele was a mix of young and old, and also occasionally females as well.

One of the most memorable moments in Paul's career came in the summer of 1974 when an Ottawa police officer (Harry Leonard, according to one source) was having a beer at the Elmdale Hotel across the street and as a joke to Paul, brought his horse Caballero Hanover into the barber shop for a trim before he was to sell him (apparently for $10,000). A photo of this hung in Paul's shop for years afterward. (A copy of that photo was one of the first things I asked about when I first called. What a great memory to see it again!). Anyhow, apparently the police chief came the following day to apologize to Paul, but Paul laughed it off and said he didn't mind at all, and according to Denise "cost him a brush and a pair of scissors as a souvenir."

The famous photo of Paul with Caballero Hanover.
(Photo courtesy of Denise Brisebois)

The horse coming out of the shop; also a great
shot of the original "Paul's Barber Shop" sign!
(Apologies for the reflective glare)
(Photo courtesy of Denise Brisebois)

Even if Hintonburg was a bit of a rough neighbourhood during portions of this era, Paul always felt safe, between the large number of police he had as customers, and having legendary Ottawa tough-guy Jerry Barber next door helped too (Barber owned Danny's Used Furniture next door at 1107 Wellington for many years). Paul did have a break-in once, where the thief took the little bit of cash that was on site, but also all of his equipment. Customers arriving to the shop that day must have been surprised to find the shop closed mid-day. Paul had to put up a sign and let his customers know that he would be back in two hours as he was out buying new clippers and scissors!

From a poster made for Paul by a local
Hintonburg photographer circa-1980

Denise also recalls the time when she was at home with their young children, and put a pineapple plant in the large sunny window. This plant would attract classrooms of children from the nearby school, whose teachers would bring the classes by to follow its growth!

Back then businesses in the west end were closed on Wednesdays.  Denise convinced him one summer to close on Mondays to have two days at the cottage. "It worked out well, his customers respected his wishes." adds Denise.

Paul never had a phone in the store until he had a cell phone during the final years (he never took appointments). Prior to that, in order to reach him you had to call Morris Clothing (then located at 1099 Wellington).

Mike Laflamme shared a great, funny story on Facebook: "I was at Paul's shop one day and realized I had no money on me. He said don't worry about it and pay me later. At the time I was driving the #2 bus in front of his shop every day. One of the regular passengers was a young lady that worked at Scotia bank and I would let her off in front of Paul's and would give her a quarter to give to him till it was payed off. He would shake his fist at me every time I drove by."

More classic photos of Paul in the shop:





One morning in April of 1999, Paul was opening his barber shop early as he did everyday, when he noticed and smelled smoke coming from the roof of the building across the street. He phoned 911 from his cell phone, and fire fighters arrived minutes later to find the century-old building at the corner of Wellington and Sherbrooke (Lt. Pooley's Pub, among other shops) ablaze. "Then I saw flames and I thought the worst" he later told reporters. The first responder was a fire Captain en route to the nearby Station to begin his shift. The fireman yelled at two people in an upstairs window to stay where they were, then ran upstairs to investigate and alert other residents. Paul waited alone outside, and when a police officer arrived soon after, Paul alerted him to the fireman inside. Two other tenants escaped by climbing out onto the Lt. Pooley's sign, and a bystander backed a cube van under the sign, allowing the tenants to jump on the roof to climb down. The other two tenants were soon rescued by firefighters with a ladder, while three more tenants escaped through a rear exit. The fire left 10 people homeless and destroyed 6 businesses. Arson was suspected, and the fire had started in the basement hours before Paul had noticed the smoke. Paul's actions that morning may well have saved the lives of those tenants in that building.

In his spare time, summer week-ends were spent building or landscaping on the cottage property in the Gatineau, while winters were spent snowmobiling and ballroom dancing

After 45 years in the shop, in April of 2004, Paul decided to retire. Legendary storyteller Earl McRae, then of the Ottawa Sun made sure not miss a chance to profile a man he called "Paul the legend". Paul was reluctant at first, but eventually relented, and thankfully so. The entirety of that column is included below:

"The Last Cut is the Deepest" (Ottawa Sun, April 14, 2004), by Earl McRae

Sorrow in Hintonburg.

After 45 years snipping and clipping in the same location, Paul the legend is packing it in, so I ask him to tell me the owners of some of the more famous fibres that have landed at his feet which, as always, are ensconced in his special soft, black, leather shoes with the extra-thick sponge sole to ease the pressure on legs that are perpendicular nine hours a day, six days a week.

"Well, there was Gerry Barber."

What? GERRY BARBER? The Gerry Barber? The toughest guy in the history of Ottawa, the most feared bouncer in all of Canada, the notorious manager of the Chaudiere Club whose punks-pounding reign ended only when he suffered a fatal heart attack dancing with his wife; that Gerry Barber?

That Gerry Barber. Owned the used furniture store next to Paul's joint on Wellington St. Just around the corner from the Stirling, the bucket of blood that even the cops backed away from on the nights the booze was flowing and the fists were throwing, which was every night.

With the head of Gerry Barber the size of a medicine ball, Paul had lots of time to get to know him cutting his hair -- "wiry, curly, good texture" -- and it was Gerry himself who recommended the legs-saving shoes to Paul, Gerry figuring that strong and healthy legs were just as necessary to Paul having to stand cutting hair as they were to Gerry in the effective bouncing of bodies.

IN STITCHES

"He was a nice guy, a nice guy," says Paul. "He asked me to remove his stitches."

Stitches? "He had stitches on his forehead." No doubt from one of the many crowbars, tire irons, and baseball bats Gerry's forehead entertained over his career. "I cut them off with my scissors." Very delicately, otherwise Paul might not be around today to tell the story.

It was always comforting knowing Gerry was working right next door, which is probably why Paul showed great guts beyond the normal call of common sense one day.

"This drunk came in for a haircut. He'd been at the Stirling. Another guy came in from the Stirling wanting to fight him, and they were screaming and yelling. I told them to get out, and they did."

Paul of Paul's Barber Shop is Paul Brisebois and he's been cutting hair alone -- no fancy stuff, he's an old-fashioned barber -- in the same small, bright space of white walls, big mirrors, fluorescent lights, and two red leather swivel chairs since he was 18, but now he's giving in his notice to the landlord at the end of the month.

Like with all athletes, the legs are the first to go, and Paul's 63-year-old legs ("You want to sit down, but you can't") are sending him messages. His special shoes help, and so does the special rubber mat around the base of the chair he uses 15 to 20 times a day at $8 (for seniors) and $9.50 a pop, but there's his wife Denise and sons Daniel and Martin and grandchildren Louis and Emilie and his golf game and his cottage and he thinks the time has come to spend more time with them all.

NOSTALGIC BANTERING

What Paul will miss most is not the barbering, but the bantering; bantering seldom changes, barbering has. Hair cream (Brylcreem, Vitalis, Wildroot) and those tall bottles of sweet-smelling, multi-hued liquids are long gone ("People didn't like their hair smelling anymore"), and shaves, too ("AIDS -- concern about nicks and the transfer of blood with the straight razor."). The long-haired hippy era was the worst for Paul ("Lots of barbers quit; I almost did, too, but I waited it out").

Denny Barch, new customer, smiles. He's 37. He walked into Paul's Barber Shop with hair below his shoulders. Now it's short back and sides for the first time since 1991. Paul is brush-dusting Pinaud Finest Talc -- World Famous Since 1810 on the neck of Denny Barch, who says: "Great haircut. A feeling of refreshment. Like a cold beer on a hot day. I looked like a disrespectable member of society, now I look respectable. All I needed was a haircut."

They say a dog is man's best friend? No. It's his barber. Find a good one and you hold onto him for dear life. There's sorrow in Hintonburg today, but Paul the Barber offers a glimmer of hope. "For some of my older customers, I might still go to their homes if they want."

They will want, Paul.


Photo from the Ottawa Sun April 14, 2004

****

Paul was 63 when he retired, and had simply become tired (how can you blame him after 45 years of working on his feet?). He also had become a little disenchanted with the changes happening to the Hintonburg neighbourhood, in particularly the prevalence of biker gangs. His wife Denise had retired in 2001 after the city amalgamated, and had taken up badminton (she convinced Paul to join her one evening per week; they later switched over to pickleball). Later while on a trip, Paul just one day announced he wanted to retire. At the same time, the owner of the building had died in a car accident, and his widow offered for Paul to go on a monthly lease. But Paul refused; his mind was made up. 

On his final day, he had made arrangements with a buyer to come and buy all of his equipment, including those amazing, comfy red barber chairs. However the buyer never showed, and Paul had to move all the furniture out by himself. Disappointed, he had rented a trailer and was in the process of moving everything, when a friend came by, saw what happened, and got in touch with someone he knew. By the time Paul had everything back at his house, a new buyer came and bought it all up (Denise remembered that the buyer's son wanted the chairs for his rec room, so it's good to know that those chairs likely still live on somewhere in Ottawa). 

Paul was happy to be retired, and particularly enjoyed being able to experience cottage life. He continued to do haircuts for some of his dedicated customers in his home (my Dad was one of those fortunate customers), while also performing house calls for some of his older clients or those with medical problems (as he did even when he had his shop open). According to Denise, after a few years, he began suffering vertigo attacks and could no longer cut hair, "though with medication he was able to play some golf." Unfortunately, he was later diagnosed with prostate cancer, but recovered with radiation. Now at age 75 he enjoys his leisure time but suffers memory loss. When I called the Brisebois household, Denise (as you can see) was as helpful as you could wish for, and patiently replied to all my questions and provided me with any photos I asked about. 

Even when I was a teenager, and grew my hair long (I don't think I had a haircut for about 3-4 years at one point) I could still count on getting a friendly wave from Paul every time I walked by the shop on Wellington. And it appears many others had the same experience, and more than anything, that is Paul's lasting legacy, his friendliness to so many. Just a small sampling: Dennis Morgan wrote "Paul Brisebois! What a great friendly man! Cut my hair when I was a little guy, up until I shaved my head. He got a kick out of that!!", while Sue Rock commented "Paul was always friendly, we lived on Sherbrooke St. And anytime we passed his store he always had a smile and a wave if he wasn't cutting someone's hair", and Paul Leblanc added "I'd wave to him every time I walked by. Nice guy. Great story teller." 

When Paul's Barber Shop closed, it remained a hair salon, the relatively short-lived "Scissor & Comb". It later became an e-Scooter shop, before becoming "Wellington Wholesale Seafood" by 2012, which it remains today. But it still seems funny seeing something else in that little shop. I think there are many like me who walk by today still and wish they could still see the familiar sight of Paul in the window, working his trade, and give him a wave.


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A closing note of thanks to Mike Laflamme helping make the arrangements, and also for providing some personal anecdotes; to Denise Brisebois and the Brisebois family for their time and help in putting this together; and of course to Paul the Barber for his many years of hard work and dedication to the people of Hintonburg.

4 comments:

  1. Great article Dave, thanks for the memories.

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  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  3. What a nice story. I am proud of Paul for this part of his life that I din't know.

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