Conversation and service at Austin’s Barber Shop

By DEBRA JENSEN-DE HART
For Stateline Business Journal
BELOIT — “Beloit barbers have at last yielded to the demands of the high cost of living. Beginning Thursday, it will cost Beloit just thirty-five cents to get its haircut,” according to the Beloit Daily Free Press of March 17, 1914.
The rate increase came just in time for the oldest continually operating barber shop in Beloit to take advantage of it just a few years later.
Welcome to Austin’s Barber Shop, 316 State St., established in 1917 and still going strong. Although the name and location have changed over the years and barbers have come and gone, it is the tradition of the barber shop that has remained.
For roughly 39 years of its existence, Eugene Rodney “Rod” Gottfredsen also has built his own history with the shop, the customers and the City of Beloit.
On a recent Saturday morning, Rod welcomed customers and chats with them all. He also recounts the history of the shop to a visitor, often interrupted by customers coming and going, a ringing phone to take a payment or set-up another appointment for someone. It’s like that in a one-man
operation.
Customer Jim Wilson, who says he is soon to retire, sits comfortably in the barber chair as Rod snips away. He’s been coming to the shop for years.
“I guess I’m a traditionalist: I like the atmosphere of the barber shop and obviously, the haircuts are paramount,” he said.
As Rod works, he also recounts his personal history. He was born and raised in Racine and began barbering there. Then in 1977, he married his wife, Kim Gottfredsen, who came from Rockton. The couple lived in Racine at first but then came to Beloit so they could be closer to Kim’s family, Rod said.
Gottfredsen worked for the late Charlie Wilson for a few months. When that didn’t work out as planned, he was briefly jobless. Matthew “Matty” Austin, who just happened to also show the Gottfredsen’s the Beloit apartment they moved into, got acquainted with Rod and asked if he would like to fill in for him for two weeks at his barber shop while he took a vacation. At the time, the shop was located on East Grand Avenue.
“It was a 300 square-foot room filled with (tobacco) smoke and no ventilation,” Rod recalled. “But I could endure anything for two weeks.”
Rod, being schooled in hairstyling and barbering, began to draw college students, he said, and the customer base grew. When Matty came back after his vacation, he was asked to stay on permanently. At the time, a third barber also worked at the shop, but he also suffered some health problems and needed to quit the job.
Five years later, on September 30, 1983, things changed dramatically.
“Mr. Austin asked me if I could stick around after hours, so even though we were expecting people at our place, I stayed. He started in on this long diatribe. At the end, he said he was 77 years old and that his wife was already retired.” Rod began to panic. “I thought he was either going to sell the shop or close it. At the time, I didn’t really have two nickels to rub together.”
Besides their everyday expenses, the couple were parents by now and medical expenses had mounted up.
To his surprise, Matty told Rod he had already been to his lawyer’s office, paid the next month’s rent and taxes and was giving the shop to him.
“‘I’m turning the place over to you and I want to work for you part-time if you will let me,’“ he told Rod.
Rod was flabbergasted.
“He gave me everything,” Rod said.
To top it off, the day was Rod’s birthday, one has never forgotten. It may have been fate that brought the couple to Beloit, but Rod prefers to think it was a higher power.
“The Lord has been so good to us. Both kids were born on a Monday, my day off,” he quips.
But there is no time off on this morning as customers come in steadily for their appointments. Next customer will be a bit of a challenge, but one Rod takes on with patience.
Arny Larson, age 2 and one half, has only been there once before. He came on this day with his mother, Trista Larson of Rockford, and his grandmother.
They settle the little guy into the mini airplane seat Rod has for children, but Arny doesn’t want any part of it. The three adults calm him down with M & Ms and soothing remarks.
Soon, Rod begins his work.
“It’s worth it if he’s going to take his time, he’s so patient,” Trista Larson said of the barber.
“Good job little dude,” Rod tells Arny at the end, and off the little tyke goes.
Saturday is often the day that working people and parents bring their children in for their appointments, Rod said.
One such family is the Frank McKearn family. On this morning, Frank and his 14-year-old son, Joe, are customers.
“We come in for the jokes,” Frank said. And, “I come in to find out what’s going on in town.”
There was a time when there weren’t appointments and people just walked in and waited for their haircuts. But people got tired of waiting sometimes for two hours, Rod said. So he made the decision in 1994 to start taking appointments on Wednesdays. He raised the price of haircuts from $7.50 to $9.50. At the time, he was afraid it might cost him customers.
However, the customers were glad to have appointments and Wednesdays became the busiest day of the week.
“This became a no-brainer, the customers liked it and it was lucrative for me,” he said.
Presently, nearly all of the work is done by appointment. Gottfredsen still takes walk-ins, but they have to wait if someone else has booked his time.
Today, haircuts are $20 at Austin’s, but senior citizens can get a $3 reduction if they come in between 8:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. during the week.
It was George Wheeler who started the shop in 1917. At that time it was located in the Beloit Hotel. Later it moved to East Grand Avenue and then to State Street.
Matthew Austin began working at the shop in 1925. In 1946, he and Howard Schleicher took over for George Wheeler. Austin then gave the shop to Rod in 1983. One of the first things he did was to install a telephone. Rod had other employees over the years, but has worked alone since 1994.
In the old days, men often came in for a haircut and a shave in the days of the straight razor. In 1917, a haircut and shave would have cost the customer about 50 cents. But then along came technology, electric and disposable razors. Presently, it’s the haircuts people come in for, although Rod trims the occasional beard or mustache.
It’s also the conversation and debate that’s part of the atmosphere at the mostly male-dominated site. Ninety nine percent of his customers are men and boys.
It’s also well-known that Rod is a history buff. The interior of the shop is loaded with memorabilia from days gone by. Pictures of historic Beloit, old shaving mugs and antique barbering tools can all be seen. An old-fashioned red and white Coca Cola machine sits close to the door and pennants hang high on the wall above the mirror with names like: Cubs, Bears, Braves, Beloit College and Carthage College. Music plays in the background on this day, a 1940s tune.
Rod is planning a 100th anniversary celebration in June and is still working out the details, he said.
About the future of Austin’s, Rod says he wants to keep working for a long time.
But one day, “My dream is that Mr. or Miss Right will buy it.”

-Some information in the story was gleaned from Beloit Historical Society files.

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