Community cornerstone

By on April 5, 2014

Photo: Father Tim Seigel, the priest at St. Gall Catholic Church, started coming into Dave’s Barbershop just 18 months ago. “I have to go home because I left my wallet,” Seigel said. “I actually forgot it. That’s the sort of thing you can’t do anywhere else.” Photos by Cheryl Borrowdale

Dave’s Barbershop approaches 50th anniversary
ELBURN—Fifty years ago this month, Dave Rissman opened his barbershop in downtown Elburn, where he’s now given haircuts to generations of residents.

Dave Rissman

Dave Rissman

“I’ve been very blessed to be here this long and to start off giving young kids their first haircut, then doing their kids when they start having children,” he said. “It’s very rewarding. I don’t look at people as just customers; I look at them as friends.”

When he opened Dave’s Barbershop in Elburn on April 27, 1964, Elburn had just 800 residents and two other barbershops downtown already. One was owned by Don Henderson; the other by Claude Martin, better known as Red Martin.

Rissman was just 23 years old at the time, “a youngster” in comparison, he said. After graduating from high school—he was part of Kaneland High School’s first graduating class in 1959—and attending Chicago Barber School, he spent four years working at barbershops in Aurora before heading out on his own.

Rissman rented a storefront at 108 N. Main Street—between Paisano’s Pizza and the American Legion Hall—until he saved up enough to buy a place of his own.

“I rented that building and wanted to buy it, but it was never for sale,” Rissman said.

Martin retired, and in 1974 Rissman bought Martin’s former building at 132 N. Main St., just a block north of his original location on Main Street. Henderson eventually came to work at Dave’s Barbershop.

Suddenly Dave’s Barbershop was the last one remaining in town. Rissman attributes his staying power to a combination of luck and customer service.
“It just so happened that they were getting older, Red retired, and I had the lasting power, I guess. They were quite a bit older than me. I was a youngster when I came to town in 1964, and a lot of my clients have been clients for 30, 40, 50 years,” Rissman said.

He considers himself lucky, he said, because his customers have been loyal in an age when independent barbershops have struggled as more and more people have gone to franchises.

“I think it’s simply been because I’ve always maintained the same high standard of quality work and friendliness that goes along with being a successful businessman in a small town,” he said. “You get back whatever you give out, is my thought. I’ve been able to make a living—you’re never going to get rich in this business, but you can make a living. I take pride in what I’ve done here, and I try to run it in such a way that I can look in the mirror in the morning and not be disappointed in who I’m looking at.”

Among his newer customers is Father Tim Seigel, the priest at St. Gall Catholic Church, who heard about Dave’s Barbershop on a recommendation from Village President Dave Anderson. Seigel walked into Rissman’s establishment and asked for a haircut, and the two are now fast friends who breakfast together at the Kountry Kettle.

“I haven’t had a haircut anywhere else since I moved here (18 months ago),” Seigel said. “I think (Dave’s) been able to stay in business a long time because he really builds relationships with people, and he really knows their stories. I look at him as one of the outstanding servants of our community, because he really cares about his customers and builds relationships.”

Those client relationships are so strong that, when some of his customers have become too ill to come in for haircuts, Rissman has gone to them. He regularly visits clients in nursing homes and rehabilitation centers to give them haircuts—and he refuses to let them pay.

“I don’t know how many haircuts I’ve been paid for (over the years), but I know there were thousands that I’ve given away. It’s just another little way of giving back,” he said. “People always try to offer to pay you, but I say, ‘You’re not the first, and you certainly won’t be the last.’”

Few people know that Rissman spent years quietly giving free haircuts to those in need. Once a week, he went to Hesed House, a homeless shelter in Aurora, to cut hair for people at the shelter. Most weeks, there were 20 or more people lined up waiting for haircuts, and Rissman wouldn’t get home until after midnight.

“I’m always reluctant to say, well, what have you done?” he said. “I don’t do stuff for personal recognition. I didn’t do it because I’d ever get any of those people as clients. I do stuff like that just to help people out. I think you just try to be as good of a person as you can every day, and you let the chips fall where they may. If you have to brag about yourself, you’re doing something wrong.”

Over the years, he’s expanded Dave’s Barbershop significantly. When he opened in his present location in 1974, there were a few chairs for clients up front, but much of the first floor was a small rental apartment. Rissman converted that apartment into more space for his business, and now he rents some of it to a massage therapist and another hair stylist.

He’s gone through dozens of redecorations, but his goal has always been to keep the shop homey.
“I never was a big fan of the leather-and-chrome-type shops,” he said. “It’s cold and impersonal. I could’ve done all that in here, but that’s not my style. You’re liable to walk in here and see toys all over the floor from (client’s) kids playing.”

The biggest redecoration—and the biggest challenge Rissman has faced in his half-century in business—came on Jan. 1, 1999, when a fire gutted the barbershop and caused over $150,000 in damage.

“That fire totally burnt me out,” he said. “There was a lighting sconce up front that shorted and started the fire, and it totally burned out everything in the lower level. The back didn’t get burnt, but it got smoke damage. People thought I’d be closed for a long time.”

That wasn’t an option for Rissman, who worked day and night with his youngest son, Joel Rissman, a contractor and firefighter, to rebuild the barbershop themselves.

Dave’s Barbershop reopened just 18 days later.

“We worked like dogs,” Rissman said. “That was the longest I’ve ever been closed.”

Perhaps his most hair-raising experience as a barber, though, came when he got a call from Chuck Conley, who was the then-director of Conley’s Funeral Home.

“I had the living bejeezus scared out of me,” Rissman recalled.

Conley invited him to come to the funeral home to cut hair, and Rissman initially declined. But when Conley told him that one of his clients had passed away and the family had requested that Rissman give the last haircut, he agreed.

“Chuck assured me that he would be there with me the whole time, that I wouldn’t be alone with a dead body,” Rissman said. “I should’ve known better, because when I got there he said, ‘Dave, all heck has broken loose upstairs and I’m going to have to leave you here.’ They have a marble slab they embalm bodies on, which is fine for embalming but not for cutting hair. And they have a door buzzer, and it went off, and my heart started pounding and it scared me out of 10 years of my life.”

After 50 years in business, he has no plans to retire anytime soon—retirement’s just not in his vocabulary, he said.

“It’s never crossed my mind,” Rissman said. “Bruce Conley was a good friend of mine, and I’d cut his hair since he was a little boy, and I had a deal with him that he was to pick up things behind my chair when I dropped, so that I didn’t leave half a haircut behind. But he checked out before me, so I don’t know what I’m going to do now.

“As long as God wants me to be here to cut hair, I guess I’m going to do that, God willing. It’s been a great ride. I don’t see myself ever quitting.”