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Finding America in Her Barbershops

Keith Buswell in a barbershop
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Keith Buswell doesn’t remember his first haircut.

Vivid in his memory, though, is the carpeted booster seat placed across the arms of the barber chair.

School-aged, teen-aged. He was to sit in that chair many more times.

Even now, as he talks barbershops while seated in the lofty perch in Ron’s Barber Shop in North Ogden, a similar booster seat is tucked nearby in the corner.

“Little boys grow up to be men right there in that same chair,” says Buswell.

Buswell, grandfatherly and affable, is seldom downcast. But he is dis-heartened that, in the decades since he first was snapped into a white barber cape, this once common apple-pie slice of Americana is disappearing. The red-and-white pole and the black-and-white checkered floor, seared into our common memory by the likes of Norman Rockwell, are more and more rare. With it, he fears, is the fading of “the traditions and values of Main Street America.”

Barber Ron Anderson pauses in trimming Boswell’s already neat white hair, his scissors flashing as he makes his point. He has 55 years behind the barber shop, so it’s with authority that he identifies the culprit. “Gillette destroyed the barbershop,” he says. “Can you imagine how busy we’d be if businessmen had to get a shave every day?”

More than 20 years ago, Buswell gave himself the task of documenting Main Street barbershops. Since then, he’s sat down for haircuts across the country and recorded stories.

He understood that “it really isn’t about the haircut or the shave,” he says, “It’s about the decline of genuine social connections. It’s about the decline of the part of Main Street that’s good and solid.”

In 2015, Buswell met with English department advisers, lugging what department head Jeannie Thomas remembers as a “literal suitcase” filled with memorabilia, photos, business cards. On May 4, he graduated with a master’s degree in American Studies, his years of research organized into a master’s thesis. “I met my goal of getting a master’s before I was 65,” he says. The next day he celebrated birthday No. 65.

A map of the many barbershops that Keith has visited.Buswell’s adventures have taken him to nearly every state, but never along the same highway twice—an obsession he verifies with a marked-up map. “It’s just a part of who I am,” he says.

So far, he’s racked up mileage to equal a trip to the moon and back. That doesn’t count the miles he’s driven on Utah’s country roads. “I bet,” Buswell says, with more than a tinge of satisfaction, “you’ve never met anyone else who’s had his hair cut in all of Utah’s 29 counties.” Indeed.

Luckily for us, Buswell compiled the stories he came across while seated in barber chairs in a digital exhibit “In Search of America: One Barbershop at a Time” hosted by USU’s University Libraries.

Buswell is vice president of corporate relations at Wadman Corp., a large Ogden-based construction firm. His career, however, has taken him nationwide. It was in a small town in Montana, while Buswell was biding time between a son’s wrestling matches at a nearby high school, that he first paid attention. Picking his way along snowy, frozen streets in route to a forgettable meal at the town diner, Buswell passed a small barbershop.

“So I went in,” he says, “and, all of a sudden, it was just like I came home.”  The distinct odor of shaving cream and aftershave. Reader’s Digest and National Geographic magazines scattered about. The folksy banter. He resolved to visit such “safe harbors” nationwide.

His only regret is that he didn’t start earlier. As for the future, it is likely to include a book. Beyond that, only one thing is certain: Buswell will always have time for a haircut. He may be left with some bad haircuts—they’re easy enough to recover from, he says. But, he adds, “there are no bad barbers.”

See Buswell’s exhibit at exhibits.usu.edu/exhibits/show/mainstreetbarbers/. Listen to Buswell at 2018 Ignite USU, the university’s premiere student speaking event. rgs.usu.edu/ignite/portfolio-items/keith-buswell/.

by Janelle Hyatt
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