Barbershop’s owner to erect mixed-use building on current site
Nestled in an old brick building on Cornwall Avenue at the southern foot of the Lettered Streets neighborhood, it’s easy to miss Morrie’s Barbershop nestled amongst the area’s quaint, residential dwellings.
The location, after all, doesn’t have any fancy neon signs, and the name of the business, painted in red on the building’s awning, is nearly invisible, faded by the sun and elements with the passage of time. There’s not even a barber’s pole outside.
Unlike many of the dozens of other places around town people can go to get their hair cut, though, owner Morrie Bass, 53, doesn’t need flash and pizzazz to attract customers.
He has some of the best advertising a business can get — word of mouth. More than 30 years worth of it.
Having lowered ears at various locations around the area since 1971, Bass, who’s been at 2201 Cornwall Ave. since 1993, has gained a reputation among men of all ages as having one of the best places to go for a quick trim, some good laughs, and witty banter.
“He’s interested in people,” said Dr. John Weaver, a physician at nearby Bunks Medical Center who’s been going to Morrie’s for 15 years. “He’s always asking about your family or your golf game. He’s just a friendly, hard-working fella.”
Those qualities and characteristics, longtime customers say, run in the family and were similar to those of his father, Edward, who opened BB Barbershop in 1951 on Holly Street, and cut hair at the location with Morrie’s grandfather, Lawrence, and three uncles, Bud, Bill and Sonny.
Those same features, clients say, are also present in Morrie’s son, Jess, 35, who’s been cutting hair alongside his dad at the shop since 1992, and Morrie’s older brother, Gary, who works there when he gets time off from his other job at Intalco.
Providing a casual atmosphere, said Morrie, on a recent Friday afternoon, as he and Jess, in workmanlike fashion, quickly clipped a revolving door of customers, is something he learned as a youngster hanging around his dad’s shop, where he’d shine shoes and sweep floors for pocket money.
“I personally think people like to come into a barbershop because they can let their hair down, so to speak,” he said. “They can talk about anything. They can talk about their problems, and that can make people feel good. We hear everything about everything.”
Added Jess: “We’re safer than a bar and cheaper than a psychiatrist.”
The two also say that barbershops are one of the last few places men can go for quality guy time. And the shop, with its stacks of hunting, fishing and sports magazines, photos on the walls of wolves and bucks, and hair-care products that read simply “spray” and “gel,” gives no hints that a wife or girlfriend has been around anytime lately.
“It’s a nice sanctuary for men,” said Jess, who estimates 99 percent of their clients are males. “We can talk about sports or talk about women. We’re not that politically correct in here, but we do try to avoid talking about politics and religion.”
In addition to being a bit of a treehouse with a “boys only” sign, the shop is often an impromptu comedy show, too, with Morrie and Jess often joking about who gives the better cuts and giving their customers some good-natured ribbing about the length of their hair.
“You’re starting to look like a hippy,” Jess tells a customer.
“They call me Don King,” he’s corrected.
Because Morrie’s is a place to come to laugh, chew the fat or talk about what’s going on around town, the barbers said the shop is also a place where many customers come to simply hang out and join in on conversations, watch the news on TV, or read the paper.
As evidenced by the 1,500 business cards he’s collected, Morrie said the shop is also a place to do networking. And he usually hears newsworthy events at his shop well before most people read about them in local papers.
The barbers also hear lots of personal information about people, too, but they follow the Guy Code and keep it inside the shop’s walls.
“We’re not as bad as a beauty parlor,” said Jess. “But, no doubt, we do hear plenty of stuff.”
While working in the barbershop generally makes for fun, interesting days, the duo said there are times when they hear things that can make them pretty emotional.
On several occasions, they’ve been asked to shave peoples’ heads because they were going to start chemotherapy. Other times, customers will talk about how they’ve been out of work for a long time or are going through a divorce.
“Sometimes a guy will get in your chair and you’ll ask him how things are going and he’ll say, ‘Well, not so good, I just lost my wife,’” Morrie said.
“You feel for some of these people — people who aren’t doing well, people who are dying,” said Jess. “Almost every time we open the paper we see people we know in the obituaries. We lose two to four customers a week. It can ruin your day.”
But, said Morrie, he and Jess are upbeat people and can find positives in every day.
With three generations of customers having had their hair cut by the Basses, Morrie said, it’s likely the family has cut tens of thousands of heads of hair over the years.
Over the course of a few hours on a recent afternoon, it appeared Morrie and Jess knew each customer like they were kin, as every swing of their door prompted a “Hey, Bryce,” or “Hey, Ralph,” or “How’s your house comin’ along,” or “How’s your little girl.”
Morrie admits it’s nearly impossible to go somewhere and not run into a customer, as was the case with recent vacations to Florida and California.
Locally, the odds are even greater.
“We can’t go anywhere in this town — and I mean anywhere — without knowing someone,” he said. “We go to the mall, Yeager’s, restaurants, and see thousands of people we know.”
Because so many bonds have been created in the barbershop, Morrie said, he’s been struggling with a recent decision of his — he plans to tear it down in the next few months.
As an investment toward his retirement, he plans to build a three-story, mixed-use building on the shop’s site, with six condo units on the top floors and two retail spaces on the ground floor. He plans to break ground this spring.
“It will be sad to see it go,” Morrie said. “We’ve got a lot of history here. It feels good here.”
Because city zoning laws didn’t allow for a barbershop in the new building, Morrie, in October, purchased the old Club Barbershop at 1523 Cornwall Ave., next to Bay Printing. He’s renamed it Morrie’s Club Barbershop and has been trying to get clients accustomed to the new location in recent months.
Without Jess by side, though, he said, things just haven’t been the same.
“We’re separated right now and I don’t like it,” Morrie said. “We’re used to working together and we get along extremely well.”
Nick Tsoulouhas, owner of Cascade Pizza, a 10-year client of Morrie’s, said it’s the Bass family bond that keeps him coming back to the shop.
“They work so well together and like to joke with each other — their connection brings a warmth to the place,” he said.
Morrie’s wife, Nancy, said it’s likely the Bass barbering won’t end with Jess. Their 7-year-old grandson, Mason, is already eyeing a chair in the store.
“When he comes in, he says, ‘I want to be a barbershopper too.’”