Barber shop keeps tradition alive in downtown Wooster

By Ellen Pill, AloNovus Corp

“I had a good barber I was close with growing up,” Ryan Helms said. “He cut my hair my entire life.”

Helms is now on the road to being that lifelong barber himself for a new generation.

“We are a traditional barber shop,” Helms said. “We still use a straight razor and the hot towel on the back of the neck.”

Helms explained what that means for those who are unschooled in the ways of the barber. “When we are done with the haircut, I get the lather hot, lather up the brush and soap up the back of the neck and shave it with the straight razor and put a hot towel on the back of the neck. It’s man pampering.”

Helms did not set out to be a barber. It all started when he was a freshman in college at the University of Akron and a friend of his needed a haircut.

“I had some clippers, and I said I’d try,” Helms said. “I did a pretty good job, and I enjoyed it.”

By the time he was a senior, Helms was cutting all his friends’ hair. After graduation in 1997 he continued his hobby of giving haircuts to friends.

In 2004 life took an unexpected turn after Helms was in a car accident. “I took a good look at what I was doing. I wasn’t enjoying the job I had and wanted to do something that I really loved.”

One day while cutting a friend’s hair, Helms shared he was searching for a new career. “He said to me, ‘You’ve been cutting my hair for 10 years. You seem to like it, so why don’t you go get your barber’s license?’ I guess that was my aha moment.”

He signed up for barber college the next day.

Once Helms had his own shop, he decided to do things the way he remembered growing up: the old-fashioned way. His first shop was in New Philadelphia. After meeting his wife, a local resident, he ended up moving the shop to downtown Wooster nine years ago.

Helms Old Fashion Barber Shop is filled with nostalgia. “I just kind of collected things as they found me,” Helms said.

Some of his barber chairs are from 1952. The others are from the early ’70s. Helms has used the same chair ever since he became a barber.

“That’s the only chair I’ve ever stood behind,” he said.

In the front window of the shop is, of course, a barber pole. “It’s part of the history,” Helms said, “as well as the straight razor. If you don’t have the pole and you don’t use the straight razor, it’s questionable if you’re a traditional barber.”

Helms explained the William Marvy Company manufactured his pole. Marvy is the only company remaining in North America that manufactures the poles, and two of the company’s barber poles are part of a permanent display at the Smithsonian Institution.

“They register each pole,” Helms said. “So if you look this one up, it would say it originated at Helms Barber Shop, Wooster, Ohio.”

The message of the pole is clear. “When it’s on, that means we’re open. When it’s off, that means we’re closed,” Helms said.

Helms’ love of the traditional aspect of the barbershop goes beyond vintage surroundings and old-fashioned service. “I really believe the barber shop is the hub of the community. People come and hang out. They find out what’s going on in the area.”

The community-minded barber believes that a full-service haircut should be available to everyone. Haircuts at Helms still cost $10, the original price from when he started in Wooster nine years ago.

There are no appointments at Helms either. “You come in, throw your name on the list, and you sit down and enjoy the conversation.”

The coffee is always on and always free, brewed from local Sure House Coffee Roasting Company beans. There is a play area for kids and a guitar.

Often a customer will pick up the guitar and provide an impromptu concert. “Just having the guitar sitting there has treated me to some good moments,” he said, like the time a couple’s van broke down outside the shop on a cold day.

Helms invited them in to get warm and have coffee while they waited for the tow truck. The gentleman commented on the blues that is always playing at the shop. Turns out he had been playing guitar since he could walk, and his wife was a gospel singer.

“He started playing, and she started singing, and it made the hair on my arms stand up to hear that amazing voice that bellowed out of her. She sang a couple of songs, and he said it was time for some blues. He played just as good as any CD I ever listened to.”

The barber is all about giving back to the community in many ways as well. When Helms was just starting out, a homeless man came into his shop and said he was trying to get a job but couldn’t because of the way he looked. Helms made him a deal.

“I said if you let me cut it the way I want, I’ll cut it for free. When I spun him around and he saw himself in the mirror, he said, ‘I haven’t seen that guy in a long time.’ He started to cry. Everyone was crying. One guy said, ‘Hey, there’s no crying in a barber shop,’ as he wiped his eyes.”

That day Helms realized being a barber was about a lot more than a haircut. Now he cuts the hair for the boys at the Children’s Home. “Making them the center of attention even for just 20 minutes, it does bring them joy.”

Sometime in December the shop will sponsor its annual Toys for Tots event. Bring in a toy and get a free haircut. Find details on Facebook at Helms Old Fashion Barber Shop.

“If the pole is on,” Helms said, “come on in.”

The shop is at 133 N. Bever St., Wooster.