Mike Bigelow has no fear that automation or competition from overseas will ruin his business.
From the January, 2018 issue
Bigelow, thirty-three, says business is booming at his Varsity Barber Shop on Liberty just a few steps east of Main. He believes it is the second-oldest barbershop in Michigan (next to one in Petoskey), and he says customers come back partly because they can feel the living heritage--"the rich history of this place really propels the business."
A third-generation barber, Bigelow revels in local history. He says he gave longtime Ann Arbor News editor Art Gallagher his last haircut before he died in 2010 at age ninety-nine--and that Gallagher told him he'd had his first haircut at the same shop as a young man eighty-plus years earlier.
In the 1890s, the shop was in the building next door to the east, in part of the space Kilwin's occupies now. It moved to its current spot in 1907, and from the mid-1920s to the late 1990s it was run first by Leo Haner and then by his son Gene. Around the turn of the century it changed hands a couple times, spending a few years as "Paula & Friends" (Paula's Barber Shop is still open in Ypsi).
Mike was still a teenager when he and his older brother, Steve, bought the Liberty St. shop in 2003. They'd been working for their grandfather, Joe Koutz, at King's Men Barbers on Plymouth Rd., and he provided the money and bequeathed the name Varsity from a shop he'd previously owned on State St.
Koutz started cutting hair on a navy ship during the Korean War, a job he took when he was offered either that or swabbing the deck, Mike says. After the war he became a barber instructor and then went into business with Bob Burton. For many years they operated the original, long gone Varsity on State St. before moving to Plymouth Rd. Koutz also built a unique combination barbershop and car wash on Michigan Ave. in Saline; the shop is gone but the car wash is still there. Koutz
retired in 2006 and died in 2011, but Mike's mother, Terry Biegas, is still barbering: she runs Keith's Barber Shop in Manchester.
When Bigelow and his brother took over the shop, downtown "wasn't as vibrant as it is now." He had to drum up business by putting business cards on car windshields in parking structures. His best move, he says, was buying an ad in the Detroit Free Press in 2004 during the Pistons' championship run. His small ad ended up being placed right next to the game story when they won the NBA title, and "every man in Detroit saw it," he swears.
The shop's barber chairs were bought new in 1961--"you know you have a good classic set of chairs when they have a built-in ashtray," he says. He started rehabbing the old six-foot barber pole in 2004 and hopes to complete the job soon, but he may need a variance from the city to do so. He can recite the history of barber poles--first they were red because barbers, who doubled as surgeons, wrapped bloody towels around their front doors; the blue was added when barbers also started dispensing medicines.
On May 31, 2008, Steve Bigelow was killed in a motorcycle accident. Mike and two employees carried on. Even during the Great Recession they worked steadily, because many customers needed haircuts for job interviews or simply to keep a job. The late local legend Shakey Jake would come by most days to liven things up and talk and talk; Bigelow has one of Harvey Drouillard's photos of Jake embracing a naked young woman in the back of the shop.
Now downtown is booming, and business has really picked up. He's hired more help, and the five chairs in his shop's small waiting area are often filled. The shop also has an old child's barber chair, and they see plenty of women and children as customers.
Bigelow's extended family hails from the Dundee area, but many have moved to the Irish Hills. He lives in Onsted with wife Nicole and toddlers Dolly and Joseph and commutes the hour to Ann Arbor daily. It's worth it, he says, to be a fixture downtown.
Bigelow jokes that his is "the world's second-oldest profession" and says he'd like to see the shop keep going for another century. He even dreams that his son will someday take it over--because, he boldly predicts, in the future "people are still gonna need a haircut."
[Originally published in January, 2018.]
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