At the age of 80, Lonnie Mack is not the oldest barber that he has known. His uncles were 85 and 92 when they hung up the scissors for good. And Lonnie may surpass them both as he takes each year as it comes and one haircut at a time.
Mack has not changed much over the years. He said, “I started out as a mild-mannered young man and still am one. Music and work have kept me grounded and level and spiritual as I have a love of nature.”
When he was 16, Mack began his career as a barber. He stepped into the family business as he cut hair part-time until he was 21. Growing up a country boy outside Alliance, Ohio, near Akron and Canton, Mack found Ohio to be a great place to spend his childhood.
He lived out in the country. His family raised chickens and pigs, and grew corn, collard and mustard greens and okra. A grape arbor and many fruit trees that produced apples, peaches, cherries and plums led to many fine desserts. All of his mother’s family baked delicious pies.
At Alliance High School, Mack did much singing and played some baseball. He loved most sports and certainly enjoyed the dances, especially when he performed singing and playing his guitar.
As a teen, Mack began his musical work. Along the way, he worked with various groups including the El Toros and Brock and Lonn. They sometimes had two upfront singers and as many as 13 instruments backing them up. Later he was a writer and producer with Barry White.
Mack pulls out an envelope from a drawer near his barber’s chair. One picture shows several young men in light blue matching suits posing. “Pick me out!” he invites. He is the youngest of them all at the top of the photo. Vocal groups from the late 1950s sang and moved synchronically as their dance moves were just as important as their harmony.
From his early music success, Mack purchased a 1957 Ford Fairlane Skyliner, a hard-top convertible that cost a whopping $4,000 brand new. His father thought that was excessive but Mack believed that since he earned the money, he could buy the car.
What he likes about music is that it matches whatever a person is interested in. “Listen to the story. Singing and writing the lyrics is what I love.” And he said that most musicians generally are interested in “love.”
Mack came to San Francisco from Ohio when he was around twenty. He worked for the U.S. Postal Service in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Later, he worked out of Novato, Santa Rosa and Sebastopol where he retired. But he was always cutting hair.
Mack opened his first barbershop in Rohnert Park’s Padre Town Center in 1993. When his lease ran out, he moved his business to his current Southwest Boulevard location just a few steps from 49er Pet Store.
No employer, Mack contracted out chairs. Marilyn Hutcheson says that Lonnie Mack was the first person that she and her husband met when they moved to Rohnert Park. Hutcheson, who comes from a long line of hairdressers, rented a chair from Mack from 2006 to 2012. Then she bought the business from him and now he rents a chair from her.
Mack, whose grandfather, uncles and cousins all were barbers, was not about to give up his hand in the family business. He referred to the movie “Barbershop” when he spoke about what it means to have a place to come to each day.
When asked how the business has changed over the past 63 years, Mack replied, “Not many walk ins; people go by appointment.” Yet, his multicultural shop thrives because Mack has adjusted over the years. He added, “I have learned more now, all types of styles and changes.”
One thing has not changed all these years. A barber must still be a good listener. “Let them talk,” he advised. People want to talk about sports, politics and themselves, what they did. “It’s like being a bartender, you need to know a little about everything. And the barber needs to be truthful and avoid controversy.”
And yet Mack has his own ideas and his own positive outlook about this country and people in general: “I think things will get a little better. We all are born, live and die. People should hope for a God in their lives. They should enjoy their lives. Do what they like as long as they do not harm others.”
Over the years, customers have looked to Mack. One man who happened to be getting his hair cut remarked boldly, “That man, Lonnie Mack, helped me get my act together when I was a teenager. I told him some of the stuff that I was doing, and he quickly advised me to take another direction.” Twenty years later that young man, now approaching forty has a good job, owns a home and has a lovely daughter.
Mack’s response to being given credit for this turn around: “Sometimes somebody else can give the message better than the parents can.” With humility, Mack accepted the man’s compliment.
Mack does not rely on the past. Music remains a major force in his life. The postal service and the barbershop helped to build his identity. A proud family man married over 50 years, he has a son and two daughters and four grandchildren.
He sees working in the barbershop as “something to do and helping my friend.” And when asked what he might do in the future, he say, “I might go north, to Oregon,” where his son lives. “It’s getting too crowded around here.”
I hope not. He just gave me a haircut for the first time. I have someone to cut my hair now who remembers that white walls were not just on car tires. Barbers lathered up around the ears and shaved a nice quarter inch oval. He relates to waterfalls and ducktails. As Lonnie Mack emphasized, “I have seen all those styles when they first came around and I’m seeing them come back.” Anyone for a boy’s regular?