The sound of clippers and scissors are drowned out by the voices that fill Don Murphy’s barbershop in Mt. Airy on a weekday morning. As he has for going-on six decades, Don Murphy is cutting hair and talking to the man in the barber chair.
“You’re doing what you do best: talking,” said David Fellner, owner of the shop’s building, to Murphy.
Fellner has just dropped in for a quick chat. He would qualify as a long-term customer at almost any other shop – he’s been getting his hair cut there for 15 years. But at Don Murphy’s, he’s just getting warmed up.
“I’m the oldest continuous cut-ee,” claimed Gordon Conwell.
“I’ll be 70 in September and I’ve been coming here for 50 years,” he continued.
Conwell grew up in Mt. Airy but now lives in Whitemarsh. He drives down regularly for a haircut and the conversation that comes with it.
Generations of haircuts
“Don’s customers come here for the talk,” joked one patron, “because they don’t have any hair left.”
Once his youngest customers have grown up and started families of their own, they often bring their kids to the barbershop for their haircuts. Eventually, it’s their grandkids that are coming in.
“There are some families where I’ve had four generations of customers,” said Murphy. “In fact there was one where I did five generations, though in the case of the great-great grandfather I only cut his hair a few times.”
It’s the kind of history you have with customers when you’ve had one job for almost 60 years. Murphy, who’s now 80 years old, started working at the shop in September 1954 when, fresh out of the service and a new barber school graduate, he was offered a job at the shop by then-owner Raymond MacFarland.
“I didn’t even know where Mt. Airy was then,” said the lifelong Manayunk/Roxborough resident.
Window to a changing Avenue
Murphy was one of several barbers at MacFarland’s place, which has been the site of a barbershop for over 100 years. “We had five [barbers] here, the shop across the block had four – all told there were 12 barbers on the block then,” he said.
Back then, the running price for a haircut was $1.50.
Almost everything except the structure of the buildings themselves has changed along the Avenue since then. Murphy has seen businesses come and go, such as the Woolworth’s once located where the 7165 Lounge is now and an Army/Navy store. Plus, there’s the jewelry shop where he bought a Timex watch for $4.95 that he still uses.
Murphy’s shop isn’t chic. It’s on the untidy side, filled with clutter and not brightly lit, and with no barber pole out front, you could easily pass by it if you didn’t know it was there. About 20 years ago, Murphy came in one morning to find there was a hole in the ground where the pole had been.
It had been dug up and stolen during the night. A customer made him a cut-glass image of a barber pole that now hangs in the window.
On a recent weekday morning the shop was filled with men waiting their turn in the chair, where Murphy was busy cutting a patron’s hair to the tune of his trademark continuous conversation.
The talk ranged from the Phillies – “They always stink in April,” said Murphy – to family members, dog-raising, and the advantages and disadvantages of a hearing aid, all without a break in the flow.
Murphy’s loyal customers or his “friends,” as he calls them, staged a celebration in 2004 marking his 50th year in the business, complete with a proclamation from then-Governor Ed Rendell. They packed a restaurant in Roxborough.
“A lot of people that had moved away came back for it,” said Murphy, “including one guy who came from California.” In a rare instance in his life, he added, “I was at a loss for words.”
Murphy has faced his share of adversity. He and his wife had two sons and a daughter. His eldest son died suddenly at age 51, and his wife, who passed away in 2011, required nursing home care for the last 14 years of her life.
Every night after work for 14 years he would visit his wife in the facility. “You could count the times I missed on the fingers of one hand,” he said. “I don’t know what it meant to her, but I know what it meant to me.”
Advancing age and his own health issues have forced him to curtail the time he spends in the shop. He starts his day there at 8:30 a.m., and as for how long he stays, that depends on the business that day.
“The other morning I had five customers in a row and I had to knock off,” he said, adding that if customers come in one or two at a time with time in between to catch a breather, he’ll stay at the shop into the afternoon.
When asked why he continues to work at an age when most have long-since retired, Murphy said, “I would go absolutely bonkers sitting at home.”
While he says the money he earns is helpful, he hasn’t upped the $9 charge for a man’s haircut in over 10 years, the real reward is his interactions with his customers.
Murphy will be taking what he says will be a brief break from barbering this Friday for a gall bladder surgery.
That won’t stop him for long, though.
“Absolutely, oh, absolutely I’m coming back to work.”
And when he does, you can bet he’ll found talking with his customers in the barber chair.