By Bernie Schmitt
Barry O’Brien is in a contemplative mood as he reflects on his new-found career as a barber.
“It’s never too late to live out your dream,” he says. “At 64 I think I’m the youngest barber in town.”
O’Brien set up shop along Fifth Street last August, occupying a newly-renovated space at the Harrison Building. He’s a half block from Main Street in Vincennes, and a historic downtown area that has been experiencing a steady renewal of growth and restoration.
“This is a good place to be these days,” O’Brien said. “Downtown is really picking up.”
A row of shiny, sharp hair clippers stands at attention as this Navy veteran and former Vincennes police officer, talks about the memorabilia hanging on the walls of his barber shop. He likes the work of Norman Rockwell, and several of the artist’s prints adorn his walls.
“I like Rockwell because his pictures tell a story,” O’Brien said.
He has an obsession with clocks, and there are several in his shop. One, which advertises Pepsi Cola, was found in a friend’s garage. It was dirty and in needed repair, but O’Brien changed out its electrical motor, cleaned it up and it’s as good as new.
“I find a lot of things at Goodwill,” he said. “I will be at the right place at the right time when I see something and offer up a price. I’ll trade and barter with people, too.”
He likes to “collect” things, he says, distinguishing himself from those who are hoarders.
“I’m not a hoarder,” he said, chuckling, “I’m a collector. A hoarder can’t see out the windows of his car or apartment. I can clearly see through mine.”
Sometimes people who know him will bring him things to hang on his walls, or to place on a shelf in his shop. Mark Kratzner, he said, came in with a painting made by none other than famed native son Red Skelton.
“He said I’ll trade you this for a haircut,” O’Brien said. “I told him that I’d give him 10 haircuts for that.”
O’Brien learned to be a barber while serving in the U.S. Navy. While aboard a destroyer, the ship’s barber kept telling his captain that he was going to re-enlist, so there was no need to seek out another barber for the ship. But when his time was up, and the ship docked in France, the barber did not re-enlist and the ship was without anyone to cut hair.
“They came to supply and asked me and two others if we were interested in being the ship’s barber,” O’Brien recalled. “The two others turned it down, but I said that I’d try it. I had two weeks with another barber and then I was on my own.”
As the ship’s barber, O’Brien cut hair for about 350 men every two weeks or so. He was then appointed the ship’s official barber and sailors called him “Obie” – the GQ barber.
“That was because I was real particular with all of my haircuts,” he said.
He’s still very meticulous when it comes to his customer’s needs.
“I try to give the customer what he wants,” O’Brien said. “If they like it, they’ll be back.”
He says he thinks he’s the only barber in town who offers a guarantee. If you leave his shop one day and discover the next that your haircut isn’t what you thought it was the day before, O’Brien says he will take care of it free of charge.
“I want my customers to be satisfied,” he said. “I don’t want them leaving without that haircut being perfect.”
He wanted to get his barber’s license upon being discharged from the Navy, but the state would not allow his two-year stint as a Navy barber to count as training. He considered barber school, but he was newly married, had a child on the way, and not enough money or time to spend on barber school.
“I needed a real job to provide for my family,” he said.
He worked a number of different jobs, and was for a few years working in the respiratory therapy department at Good Samaritan Hospital. His father was an orthopedic surgeon in Michigan City, so medical work came naturally to him.
But in 1985 there was an opening at the Vincennes Police Department, something he had also been interested in. He was hired, trained at the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy at Plainfield, and became a city police officer, a job he held for 13 years.
He left the department he says, because he was tired of “city politics.” He left town for other work for a few years before returning to Vincennes. It was his wife, Julie, a traveling registered nurse and a cosmetologist, who convinced him to fulfill his dream of becoming a barber.
“By 2017 she said I should see about it, that I now might be able to be grandfathered in for getting a license since I had so much experience in the Navy,” he said. “So I called the barber board (Indiana Board of Cosmetology Examiners) and took my paperwork showing my Navy experience to Indianapolis.”
“I try to give the customer what he wants. If they like it, they’ll be back.”
— Barry O’Brien
He said he had a short interview with the licensing board and was told that he would have to serve one year under another barber in Vincennes before he could be on his own. He put in a year at Martin’s Barber Shop in Vincennes, and last year opened his own shop at 11 N. Fifth St.
As a cosmetologist, Julie O’Brien has a salon of her own, too. It is located right next to her husband’s barber shop. But the Jules Renee Salon is open by appointment only, due to her job as a traveling nurse.
Barry O’Brien wasn’t exactly starting anew when he opened his barber shop last year. He’s kept his barbering skills intact by cutting hair for family members. He said when time allowed he volunteered to cut hair for fellow officers at the police department.
He says his downtown business is good. He gets quite a few walk-in customers, and he has a lot of “regulars.” He has one fellow from Nashville, Tennessee, who discovered his shop while visiting last year. He now comes once a month, while on business, to get his hair cut in Vincennes. Scott Organ gets a trim from O’Brien about every two weeks, “whether I need it or not,” he said.
“I’m busy when I want to be, and busy when I don’t want to be,” he said. “It is a dream come true.”