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Barber Steve Beem cuts John Harris' hair at his Plaza Barber Shop, in Healdsburg, on Tuesday, September 7, 2010. Beem is retiring after 47 years of cutting hair, 38 of which were in his Healdsburg Plaza shop.

After 270,000 haircuts, a bit of Healdsburg history moves on

Around the corner from Healdsburg Plaza, past the wine bars and bistros, is a vanishing piece of Americana — an old-fashioned, one-man barber shop.

The candy-striped pole still spins, the 1930s leather chair is crinkled and taped and barber Steve Beem answers the pay phone with a friendly "Plaza Barber Shop."

But after more than 38 years of cutting hair in the one location, Beem is calling it quits. His last day is Saturday.

"I didn't want to go beyond 70" years old, Beem, 69, said of his decision to retire.

By his own reckoning, he's done about 270,000 haircuts in his career, most of those after he took over the Healdsburg barber shop in 1972.

"He's a local legend," said Mike McGuire, 31, the former mayor and Sonoma County supervisor-elect who got his first haircut from Beem.

"He has literally been cutting hair for generations of Healdsburg residents," McGuire said. "I've never gone anywhere else."

The Norman Rockwell print on his wall of a boy getting his first hair cut has played out again and again in Beem's shop.

On Friday, two brothers who got their first haircut from Beem were in for a trim.

"What kind of haircut do you want today?" Beem asked Noah Claxton, 8.

"Spike it up, like I always do," the boy responded as Beem went to work with buzz clippers on his young customer.

His brother. Tomas Zegerra, 15, was next up.

"Are you going to play basketball?" Beem asked the Cardinal Newman High School student as the boy settled into the barber's chair.

"Not anymore," said the boy.

"You've been playing basketball a long time," Beem said.

"I like lacrosse better," replied the lad.

For Beem's clients young and old, the Tootsie Roll pops and blow pops with the bubble gum middle are part of the ritual.

On the walls, below the deer antler rack, are traces of Healdsburg history, including photos of storied Prune Packers baseball teams of the 1940s and 1950s.

In one corner, is an 1880s photo of Healdsburg Plaza with a crowd gathered for a floral festival.

Beem's bowling trophies are on the mantle and the TV is likely to be on a sports channel.

The chair in the Plaza Barber shop dates to the 1930s when the business was across from the town's main square. It moved to its Center Street location in 1955.

When Beem bought the business in 1972 from Jim Book, he charged $3 for a haircut and his lease was $50 a month.

Now he charges $16 a haircut — still the cheapest in town — and his lease is $600 monthly. But he still gets asked to give "regular, old-fashioned haircuts."

That might be a "flat top" (square corners), a "crew cut" (a little flat on top with rounded corners) or an "Ivy League" (short, barely comb-able)

From his shop window Beem has witnessed the transformation of Healdsburg from a blue-collar community to a chic, tourist destination.

"In a two-block area, I'm the oldest business. Everything changed over and over," he said.

Across the street was a "frozen food locker, where a guy cut up beef and pigs." Now it's Flying Goat Coffee.

Next to it was a big stationery store. Now, it's Powell's Sweet Shoppe.

"Most of the business is now geared toward tourists — wine tasting and restaurants, up and down my block," he said. "Traffic has increased twenty-fold."

But Beem also remembers a time when there were a lot of vacant storefronts and Healdsburg struggled, so he's not necessarily nostalgic for that era.

Beem has weathered some tough economic times. He became a barber in 1964 in Burlingame, just in time for The Beatles' arrival on American shores and the change they brought to hair lengths. Within two years, Beem said 45 percent of barbers in California were out of business.

Early in his career, he cut the hair on a couple famous heads. When he worked as a barber in Burlingame, Bing Crosby, who lived in neighboring Hillsborough, was a regular customer.

"He was in his 70s. He was very mellow. He would sing sometimes in the shop .

.

. with a song on the radio, if he knew it," Beem said. Carl Hubble, a legendary New York Giants baseball pitcher in the 1920s and 1930s, also was a client.Beem said his uncle and aunt, Bill and June Wallace, lived in Healdbsurg and lured him to town with news that the barber shop was for sale. Now, in turn, Beem has found someone to buy his business, a barber who is moving from Sacramento.Beem has told his 500 or so customers to give the new guy a try before deciding whether to stick with the Plaza Barber Shop.Beem, who plays raquetball five days a week, plans an active retirement. Golfing and fishing are on the agenda, as is traveling with his wife, Nancy, after she retires from her job as a receptionist in a dental office.He will continue to cut hair for a handful of homebound elderly clients, including one who is turning 100.In the meantime, his longtime customers have been leaving farewell testimonials in a journal in his shop."What a joy to have stable event in your life for 36 years — a haircut!" wrote one client."Thirty seven years, from black with streaks of gray, to entirely gray," said another, describing his maturing hair."You've always been gentle, kind and funny and a really nice guy," stated another."I will miss your pleasant manner and skilled attention to making me look better," wrote another satisfied client."My favorite clip joint operator," was one wisecracker's sentiment."Hair today, gone tomorrow," wrote another.

Carl Hubble, a legendary New York Giants baseball pitcher in the 1920s and 1930s, also was a client.

Beem said his uncle and aunt, Bill and June Wallace, lived in Healdbsurg and lured him to town with news that the barber shop was for sale. Now, in turn, Beem has found someone to buy his business, a barber who is moving from Sacramento.

Beem has told his 500 or so customers to give the new guy a try before deciding whether to stick with the Plaza Barber Shop.

Beem, who plays raquetball five days a week, plans an active retirement. Golfing and fishing are on the agenda, as is traveling with his wife, Nancy, after she retires from her job as a receptionist in a dental office.

He will continue to cut hair for a handful of homebound elderly clients, including one who is turning 100.

In the meantime, his longtime customers have been leaving farewell testimonials in a journal in his shop.

"What a joy to have stable event in your life for 36 years — a haircut!" wrote one client.

"Thirty seven years, from black with streaks of gray, to entirely gray," said another, describing his maturing hair.

"You've always been gentle, kind and funny and a really nice guy," stated another.

"I will miss your pleasant manner and skilled attention to making me look better," wrote another satisfied client.

"My favorite clip joint operator," was one wisecracker's sentiment.

"Hair today, gone tomorrow," wrote another.

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