Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: After 43 years, barber not quite ready to put down his scissors
From buzz cuts to Beatles hair and back to buzz cuts, Nelson Charest has been cutting hair long enough to see fashions come and go, only to return as if they were brand new. But the city native, who received his master barber license after graduating from Manchester Memorial High School in 1963, has seen some changes become permanent.
Like selling the business he has owned for 43 years.
Charest opened Nelson's Hair Cutters at 691 Somerville St. in December 1969, after apprenticing at his father's barbershop at Granite Square. Back then, men almost exclusively visited barbershops while women went to see their hairdressers. After buying the business, Charest added men's hairstyling, coloring and hair replacement. And by the mid-'70s, he was also serving women and children as family salons came into vogue.
Along the way, he hired Debbie Poulin, who recently took over ownership of the shop.
Longtime customers still will be able to see Charest, who plans to keep working Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. (Expect him to cut that down to two days in the summer.)
"Everybody retires and they think they'll get a little job on the side doing something. And I'm like, well, I can probably make more money here doing a couple of days a week than driving for a bank as a courier," Charest said one afternoon last week while waiting for one of his regular customers to arrive.
Over the years, Charest has tried other fields - he went to school to study engineering, but never finished. He also got his securities license and sold insurance and dabbled in TV and radio repair, but ultimately he stayed with the salon business. He realized he liked talking to people.
Charest cites the decline of the local manufacturing industry as the biggest change he witnessed during his career. Decades ago, ?many of his clients worked for Sibulkin Shoe, J.F. McElwain Shoe Co. and Felton Brush Co. as well as the Veterans Administration recruiting center. In their heyday, the factories supplied customers for barbershops like his as well as the neighborhood diners that were scattered around town.
But when they went away, his business continued to thrive.
"I had a pretty good clientele, and I went from just being a barber to being a hairstylist," said Charest, who updated his skills through classes paid for by hair product companies. And as those factory workers scattered, doctors, lawyers, accountants and ministers became his customers.
Poulin began working for Charest in the '80s. "I was 20 years old, and I answered an advertisement in the newspaper. I was broke. I was just out of school. I didn't even have a car. I would take the bus to work every day."
In those days, the business attracted more families with young children than it does now, which Poulin attributes in part to salon customers tending to stick with people of their own generation. She'd like to serve more young families, but she has no plans to change the name of the business.
"I've worked for him for 33 years. I can't even imagine another name or me having to remember another name," said Poulin, who considers Charest an older brother. "I left for pregnancy and cancer, and I came back both times."
Charest and Poulin like to kid that they've known each other longer than they've been with their spouses. She's glad he'll remain while the business is in transition.
"I like the idea he is still here while the process is going on," said Poulin, who recently remodeled the business, the
fourth time it's been updated since Charest bought it.
While Charest has spent time traveling over the course of his career - he owned a sailboat for 20 years and belongs to a motorcycle club - the 68-year-old says he's met people from all over the world without leaving his shop.
"How do they find me on Somerville Street?" Charest asked.
It's a good question since Nelson's Hair Cutters is hardly located in a bustling business district. It sits catty-corner from Gosselin's Superette and is next door to Metro City Records, a tiny music store. The thing is, once they find him, they tend to come back. Charest and Poulin say 80 to 90 percent of their business is from repeat customers.
People like Steve Johnston, who has been coming to Charest for at least 30 years.
"Nelson gives a good haircut," said Johnston, 59, as Charest trimmed his hair in a small room set off in the back of the store. Seems like the men and women still like a little segregation. "We've become friends over the years. We know a lot of people in common."
Johnston, who like most of the shop's customers is always booked in advance, shows up every seven weeks.
"Every time I leave here, I say, 'Nelson did a good job making me look good,'" said Johnston, whose father owned one of those bygone diners, Bobby's Lunch, on Tarrytown Road (now the home of Billy's Sports Bar and Grill.)
Charest, who has long known his people skills are just as important as his way with a razor, didn't miss a beat: "You've got good material to work with," he said.
Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or firstname.lastname@example.org.