Editor’s note: A longer story featuring Bernie Schallenberg appears in the August issue of Senior LifeTimes. Additional pictures are included with that story.
Before the doors closed on Bernie’s Barber Shop in 2004, the Main Street business was a place individuals could hang out, swap stories and even witness a prank or two.
Most of that was thanks to proprietor Bernie Schallenberg.
Schallenberg owned and operated Bernie’s Barber Shop, 395 S. Main St., for 45 years before he retired eight years ago. When the St. Clair Missourian moved its office just over a month ago to the old shop’s location, it became the first business to operate there since Bernie’s.
When the 78-year-old Schallenberg found out his former place of business was reopening as the paper’s new office, he paid a visit to The Missourian. He said he wanted to “see what the newspaper had done with the place.”
And the stories started flying around all over again.
“You always had to try to make conversation with the customer,” Schallenberg said of his years as a barber. “So there were lots of stories told back and forth. If someone was a gardener, you’d ask him about his tomatoes or green beans. If he enjoyed fishing, you asked about the fish he caught. If it was squirrel hunting, you’d talk about that. If he was a farmer, we’d talk about crops. And you’d talk sports with sports people.
“You’d hear a lot of interesting things. You always talked about what the customers’ interests were. It really was enjoyable. You learned a lot.”
Jokes and Pranks
Schallenberg said many of the conversations inside his shop would involve jokes and pranks. One of his favorites centered on former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach.
“I had a customer who looked like that old Dallas quarterback from the Navy,” he said of Staubach. “He wasn’t as big, but he looked just like him.
“I told him one day that he looked like Staubach, and he replied that he had heard that before.
“He came in one Saturday when the Cowboys happened to be in St. Louis playing the Cardinals. (The Cardinals moved to Arizona before the 1988 season.) Then another guy came in.
“Well, I whispered something into the first guy’s ear.
“When he left, I told him, ‘See you next year, Roger.’
“The other guy got all excited and thought he had been sitting next to Roger Staubach. He even told me that he had touched him.
“By Monday morning, it was all over Franklin County.
“All I did was say, “See you next year, Roger.’ That’s all it took. I never said who he was and the other guy never asked.”
Sometimes, the practical jokes moved to the front sidewalk outside the shop.
“One day it was kind of slow,” Schallenberg said. “For lack of something else to do, I put a wet paint sign on the support post in front of the shop. I counted 20 people going by, and 13 of them stopped to touch the post.
“One elderly woman got so mad that she poked her head in the door and yelled at me that I hadn’t even painted the post.
“I responded to her, ‘Yeah, but you touched it.’”
Still another one of his favorite stories involved the parking meters that used to sit along Main Street in front of businesses.
“In the winter when the temperature was below freezing, we used to go outside and squirt water in the parking meters in front of our stores using an old oil can,” he said of himself and the men who owned and operated the grocery and drug stores on either side of the barber shop. “We gave our customers free parking that way.
“It saved them a couple of pennies, but I bet it gave the meter man fits.”
Schallenberg said those are the kinds of memories that last a lifetime as does the great camaraderie he had with his customers.
“I really do miss the stories and conversations,” he said. “You would learn a lot about what’s going on around town just by talking to people who came in. I have a lot of great memories from this place.”
Schallenberg purchased the shop from his father, Forrest, in 1959. His dad retired in the early 1970s.
“This was a two-generation barber shop,” Schallenberg said. “My dad had shops in different locations in St. Clair until he bought this building in 1947. ... After I came back from the Navy in 1957, I bought him out in January of 1959.”
After his father retired, Bernie’s became a one-man shop even though it continued to have two chairs.
He remodeled the store in the 1970s after his father retired, moving the barber chairs closer to the back of the building from the south wall.
“It made my work easier,” he said of the remodeling. “When the chairs got moved to the back, the guys didn’t move their heads as much to see who was walking past the window.”
When Schallenberg retired in 2004, he said his was the only barber shop left in town.
“When I started there were five shops and seven barbers,” he said.
Schallenberg said when he first took over the shop, haircuts cost $1. When he retired, he was charging $10. He also offered shaves, shampoos, tonics and facials. And he ran the business on a walk-in basis.
“I tried appointments one time,” he said, “but then they put me on blood-pressure medicine. I couldn’t handle it. So I stopped it and went back to walk-ins only.”
Schallenberg was born and raised in St. Clair, and his boyhood home was on Route 66 about 1.5 miles east of town. He graduated from St. Clair High School in 1951. He enrolled in barber college in August 1952.
He started working for his dad in Forrest’s Barber Shop in February 1953 after his graduation. But his first stint there was short-lived.
In May of that year, Schallenberg joined the Navy and spent four years serving his country. He started working for his dad again in May 1957.
His wife, Patsie, spent 31 years as the nurse in the St. Clair school district.
The couple has two children, Susie and Dolph; four grandchildren; two step-grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren with another one on the way.
“I really can’t complain. I have lived a good life,” Schallenberg said. “I’m absolutely glad I did it. A lot of good things went on in here. It was a lot of work, but it also was a lot of fun.”