Growing from a farming community of just over 3,000 people in the early 1960s to a city of 276,000 residents today, Plano has seen a lot of change. However, there is one family-owned business that has stubbornly and loyally endured for 50 years: Plano Barbers at 1031 E. 15th St. in Downtown Plano.
The truth is, according to records, there has been a barber shop in this location for over a hundred years. But it was in December 1969 when a 29-year-old James C. Russell, Sr. and his wife, Sandra, bought the shop. In fact, Sandra was the first person in Texas to hold both a beauty and barber license simultaneously. They worked there while raising three small boys: James, Randy and Andy. James Russell, Jr. was seven years old at the time. Now he runs the business.
Conversation is always interesting while in the barber chair. James, Jr. will be quick to tell you that the code of a barber says you never repeat anything you hear. But he hears what is going on in their lives, and they hear what is going on in his. From these relationships has developed a lifetime of loyalty to his customers and fellow merchants.
Maybe that is why people keep sitting in his chair. Or it could be that a haircut is only $18. James says, “If I charged $35 for a haircut, I’d be a nervous wreck. I’d feel like I was stealing from people…These people are my friends and family members.”
His wife, Patti, says, “James’ customers are like cousins and uncles to him.” In fact, if Patti is out of town, it is not unusual for James to get a call from someone who says, “I know Patti’s out of town. You want me to stop by and get you a burger before I get up there?”
For James, even in the relationship between tenant and landlord, there has always been a sense of family. In 1992, he bought the business from his mother as she was battling cancer and dealing with mounting medical expenses. But the person who accompanied him to the bank to borrow the money and offered encouragement was the owner of the building, Frances Wells. Her grandmother, Margaret F. Mathews, bought the space in 1896, and it has been handed down to women in that family ever since.
In a business where customers, fellow merchants, shop owner, and building owner are like family, how does that happen? Perhaps it has something to do with musician Anthony Hamilton’s suggestion that “being a barber is about taking care of people.”
James is known to quietly take care of his customers by making house calls to bedridden elders who can no longer make the trip downtown. It could be that caring for people is contagious, as several of his customers in recent years have begun to get together with James and serve others in the community with meals at holiday time.
This is part of why walking in the door next to the striped barber pole feels like a step back in time. But most prominent is the tribute to Mr. Lee Gaddis, the shoe-shine man. He worked at Plano Barbers from 1930 until January 15, 1989, just a few days before his death. If some of the young boys started talking bad about somebody, Mr. Gaddis would look at them and say, “Hey, get up and go somewhere else.” Likewise, when outside visitors lapsed into racial name calling around Gaddis, they were firmly escorted out and never welcomed back. People treat people right at Plano Barbers.
For the 38 years that James has been cutting hair for his customers in Downtown Plano, he has never taken off more than two days in a year. He says, “I could never quit. They know where I live. They’ll come over to the house!” (which is just a mile away). But he does not seem to mind. In his words, it is “the greatest joy. We tell stories, cut up and have a great time.”
Dedicated to continuing the business for another couple of decades right where he has been, James hopes to bring his own small grandson into the business in about 15 years. As he will tell you, “It’s a fabulous life.”
Happy 50th anniversary to this family business that reminds us that some things in Plano still remain the same.