Driving past Perth’s gateway intersection at Foster and Wilson Streets was getting to be a bothersome thing for local entrepreneur Michael McLean. He despaired that for decades, the commercial space at the northeastern corner was often empty as business after business failed to take root.
“I used to think it was such a great location, but the way it was vacant so much, it was becoming an eyesore for this town, so I was always wondering what would be a ‘wow’ place to fill it,” says McLean, who, in addition to running an insurance marketing consulting company, also owns the town’s Blue Wings hockey franchise.
McLean’s successful answer to the conundrum came in the form of the Father & Son Barber Shop at 81 Foster Street that is now entering its third year of offering family-friendly haircuts, shaves, and a nostalgic journey through the popular culture of the past 75 years.
The idea came to McLean – whose former family business, McLean Insurance, was sold last summer after 45 years – during a trip to Georgia where, for the first time, he enjoyed an old-fashioned straight-blade shave that made a deep impression on him.
Truly impressed, he returned home and informed his wife that he planned on starting an old-school, family-style barber shop. After a brief pause to consider that he didn’t know anything about the industry, a discussion with the Appleton barber who’d been cutting his hair for a decade, Sarah Montgomery, led to a partnership with her that in less than three months opened what is likely the only Ontario shop where adults can receive a haircut and a beer for the tidy sum of $30.
McLean handles marketing and attracting clients while Montgomery manages the daily operations of a very active shop that’s a nostalgia buff’s dream destination, from the retro Coke and Ginger Ale bottles and 1950s and 60s magazines to the extensive collection of classic Archies comics and antique chairs that have been salvaged from legendary hockey arenas like the Boston Garden and Montreal Forum (the latter signed by Rocket Richard). The barber chairs are vintage 50s, while the front half of a 1965 Ford Mustang enjoys centrestage. A suite of large-screen TVs and a custom-made bar that exclusively serves Perth Brewery products complete the multi-dimensional shop.
In an age when cross-generational activities are rare, visits to Father & Son often feature kids and parents equally exploring endless items of fascination, from a 1950s phone Mclean picked up in Westport to a 1970s pac-man game that seems to draw more adults than adolescents. McLean says he designed the interior himself, thinking back to the things he remembered from high school. He realized they would not only be fun for members of his generation, but also provide the basis for teaching younger folks about life in a pre-social media age.
“We really cracked the code on the experience part for both the parents and the children,” McLean says, noting young people getting a hair cut also receive free, fresh popcorn, pop, and old-style, big league bubblegum. “I like spending time there even though I only get my hair cut once a month,” he says, adding that he often tends bar on Saturday afternoons to take in the energized vibe and meet locals and visitors to Perth alike. “There’s always lineups and non-stop chatter.”
McLean and Montgomery took great pains to ensure that the experience is true to the original family shop experience, even bringing in the head of the Canadian Barber Association to provide training on the seemingly lost art of the straight-blade shave. That 45-minute treatment often sees men becoming so relaxed that they fall asleep in their chair.
Ever the creative promotional professional, Mclean is constantly thinking of new ways to build brand awareness. Among his popular outreach efforts are mailed invitations for free haircuts on birthdays, often representing the first piece of real mail young people receive at home. For the past two years, the week before school begins has featured two days of free haircuts for anyone aged 18 and under, with over 110 served last September. McLean says that with the price of back-to-school supplies so high, families with three or four kids who need to carefully watch their bottom line especially benefit from the free offer.
“Work is a reward for me,” says McLean, who in conversation lives up to his own conclusion that “you just can’t fake passion. This is a personality business. You can train people to cut hair but you need that personality, and our barbers enjoy people. They can talk with you about anything, the news, sports, whatever you want when you hop into that chair.”
McLean and Montgomery are now discussing the possibility of opening Father & Son franchises, certain that the model that saved one formerly lonely corner of a Perth intersection can perhaps come to the rescue of other Ontario communities as well.
This was first published in the December issue of Hometown News. Missed an issue? Check them all out online.