There’s a hole-in-the-wall barbershop on School Street. It’s got a single barber chair and a small wash station in the back. A collage of pages torn from magazines adorns the back wall, with images of women in bikinis, men in suits and gleaming alcohol ads, interspersed with children’s drawings.
Resting on a low shelf is a bottle of Knob Creek Whisky and a couple of glasses. A vintage set of clippers and a straight razor are framed in a shadowbox on the wall, along with a five-foot-long set of decorative shears. A couple of guys wait in wooden chairs by the window for their turn under the clippers.
This is Homer’s Barber Shop, where Wes Williams works his skills.
Williams, 41, is a modern barber with classic training and inspiration from the barbers of yesteryear.
The shop opened in July of last year, and Williams has built up a clientele looking for an old-school experience. The business is largely an homage to Williams’ grandfather Homer Williams, who cut hair for decades in different shops around California and inspired his grandson to make a major career change in his 300s.
Last Friday, as he trimmed a client’s hair, Williams wore jeans, a t-shirt and checkered Vans, with a chain hanging from his belt loop to his wallet. An artful tattoo of a barber pole, straight razor and shears covers his right forearm, and he sports a black goatee and spiked hair shot through with grey.
He kept up a natural patter with Anthony Chavez of Galt, in the chair, chatting about golfing trips and weekend getaways to Sonoma County.
This is his working world now, but as a young man, Williams tried to run from the family business and make a career in the tech industry.
Returning to his roots
Williams grew up in Southern California near Lancaster and graduated from Quartz Hill High School in 1991. He got his first full-time job answering phones for a tech start-up in Petaluma. During breaks or between phone calls, Williams would question the programmers in the back room, picking their brains to learn code. He started making Web pages and mini websites, showing each project to his managers as his skills improved. Eventually, they hired him as a programmer.
He later found work at Intel in Folsom, designing graphics and building Web pages. That lasted for three years. But Williams’ animated personality and need to work with his hands wasn’t suited to a corporate lifestyle. He left the job in 2006, and moved back to Lancaster to run his mother’s salon.
That’s when he saw his opening. There weren’t many old-school barbershops still running, somewhere a guy could go to get the full barber treatment. It was time to go to barber school.
This was a homecoming for Williams, back into the family industry.
His mother and sister are both hair stylists, along with his wife Lorianne. Even Williams’ father, an Air Force retiree, runs the books and business end of the family salon. But his biggest influence is his grandfather, Homer.
Now 95, Homer had his first barbershop in Salinas as a young man. Later, he owned shops in Oceanside and Lodi. Pages from his grandfather’s scrapbook are displayed in Williams’ shop.
“It’s kind of bred into my DNA,” he said. “My grandfather always said the best times of his life were when he was barbering.”
Williams was inspired by stories of his grandfather’s years behind the chair.
In the shop in Salinas, there was a women’s hair salon next door. The stylists would send their clients over to Homer Williams for a trim before coloring or styling their hair, to save time. But the women didn’t like walking into a barber shop, so the two businesses knocked out a wall and built a walkway. Then, there was a spare barber chair in the back room where women got their hair cut before returning to the salon.
During his grandfather’s barbering years, Williams was growing up in Hawaii, where his dad was stationed with the Air Force. Homer Williams retired from cutting hair in his fifties and became a reverend in Oklahoma, before Williams could see his grandfather at work.
But the stories — and Homer Williams’ enthusiasm for his grandson — were enough to fuel the career change.
“He loves that I’m a barber. I’m the only grandchild who pursued it,” Williams said. “He talked about it when we were kids, but no one else jumped into it. Now my cousins are calling me, and thinking about getting their licenses.”
Learning to barber
Williams attended Stockton Barber College, where he learned to use clippers, give a close shave and master the basics. He earned his license, but kept taking classes. That includes courses by American Crew and Vidal Sassoon, both major national hairstyling product brands who also train stylists.
Williams has an ease with people which made him a natural fit as an educator. He was hired by American Crew as a teacher to instruct new stylists. He spent the next six years traveling the western United States, teaching at conferences and even cutting hair live on stage.
Once, for an American Crew show in San Jose, the team was short on hair models. Williams was out to dinner with his wife when he saw a bartender with a massive head of curly blonde hair.
“I knew I wanted to cut that hair,” Williams said. “So I convinced him to let me cut it the next day on stage.”
There was a big crowd watching Williams work his skills on so much hair. Williams used razor shears to deflate some of the volume and add texture.
“I was tossing hair; someone was videotaping. That was the most fun haircut I’ve ever done,” he said.
It wasn’t always so natural. Williams says the first haircut he ever gave was the worst of his life.
It was a Saturday at the family salon in Lincoln Center in Stockton. He had just earned his haircutting license, but was dodging clients all day, avoiding that first cut.
But one man came in when all the other stylists were busy and it was time to pick up the shears.
“I was so nerve-wracked, it was crazy. The cut was so bad I didn’t even charge the guy,” he said. “I’ve come a long way since then.”
Building a home base
Williams was living the life of a hairstyling rock star. But the travel grew tedious. Events scheduled him away from home for five to 10 days, with a two day break between trips.
Williams has an 11-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son, and was tired of missing their soccer games and school events.
“I didn’t want to be one of those dads who watch their kids grow up in pictures,” he said.
The family business atmosphere Williams grew up in just might continue with his children. Williams’ son says he wants to be either a barber or a garbage truck driver.
But Williams has caught his daughter standing with her brother in front of the bathroom mirror, trying to style his hair.
His family is why he opened his own place: To stay grounded and near his Stockton home.
The shop’s location on School Street gives it a kind of Main Street, U.S.A. feeling. Williams found the place while taking his son to watch “Iron Man 3” at Lodi Stadium 12. He signed the papers in June and opened up a month later.
“I went home, had a beer, and said ‘Holy crap, I have to open a barbershop in 30 days,’” he said. “I had two clients, a pair of shears and clippers, but I opened anyway.”
Williams is open and relaxed when he’s working on a head of hair.
“I’m here for the client interaction, for giving a certain level of service,” said Williams. “I want to bring back the things that have fallen away.”
That includes stripping the shop of any sports themes or hip hop vibes.
Instead, Williams says this is where a guy can come in and be a guy.
Chavez, who got a trim last Friday, says he found Williams online a few months ago.
“I came in a couple times, then he convinced me to change my cut to something more modern,” Chavez said. “I trusted his skill, and I like the vibe in here.”
Williams is an expert in typical cuts but revels in delivering the full experience. That can involve a straight razor shave, a hot towel treatment, and a neck and shoulder massage after every haircut.
These elements used to be standard, but now they are seen as a luxury treatment.
“It’s crazy; a lot of dads are bringing in their sons for that true barbershop experience, like they had with their dads,” he said. “I’ve got clients ages 2 to 92.”
That old-school treatment was a requirement if Williams wanted to put his grandfather’s name on the shop.
“He said, if I put his name on the door, all my clients get a neck and shoulder massage, because that’s how it’s done,” said Williams.
Contact Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.