In Ballard, a family barber shop's popularity uncut by time
For a haircut and a trip back to another era, step into Louie's Barber Shop in the Crown Hill neighborhood north of Ballard.
Seattle Times staff reporter
You want old-school Seattle, you stop by Louie's Barber Shop on Crown Hill at the northern edge of Ballard.
Haircuts for guys only, please, in a joint that's now in its 60th year — and adamantly not PC.
Louie was the late Louie LaTorre, a Marine who founded the place in 1952. He died of a heart attack nine years ago at age 78, two days after giving his last haircut.
Now it's run by his daughter, Carol LaTorre, who's been working at the shop since she graduated from high school in 1971.
She has continued the guys-only tradition, despite a run-in some 15 years ago with the state's Human Rights Commission.
That was when Carol, as everyone calls her, told a woman who walked in, "Sorry, I only cut men's hair. I'm not qualified to cut women's hair." Next thing you know, Carol gets a letter from the commission that there is going to be a hearing.
One of her old-time customers, Mike Mazon, 54, a Seattle attorney who's a 1976 Ballard High grad — lots of Ballard High grads are among her customers — took on the case.
Bottom line, he says, "We ended settling for $250 and a letter of apology. Carol had to prepare this sign that had to be posted that her barbershop does not discriminate ... that everyone is welcome."
After a decade passed, Mazon told Carol she could take the sign down, that he doubted the commission was going to be doing surveillance on Louie's, located in a garage-sized stand-alone building at 8342 Mary Ave. N.W., right behind the massive Safeway on 15th Avenue Northwest.
And so life and the sometimes-uncensored conversation continued at the barbershop
Name another barbershop that has a liquor cabinet with Bushmills and Mist whiskeys in it. Come Christmas Eve, customers will be served. Maybe some other days, too.
"Snakebite medicine," Louie called it.
There are two chairs at the shop — the one Carol uses and Louie's, which sits empty as a kind of memorial to him.
The haircuts are $17, and that includes just a haircut. Carol will do a shampoo, but you have to ask.
Customers are expected to walk in with clean hair, although in the old, old Ballard days, commercial fishermen sometimes came by, "and they had fish scales in their hair. That was pretty gross."
Stop in on the days the place is open — Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays 9 to 4, Saturdays, 8 to noon — and there seems to always be three, maybe four customers, men in their 50s, 60s, 70s. No reservation, by the way.
There is Myron Burkhardt, 70, who drives in from Bothell. He's Ballard High class of 1960 and made his living in wholesale toys. He started going to Louie's in 1956. "Everybody hung out at Louie's. It was the cool place to go," says Burkhardt. "For one thing, he had all these girlie magazines that you could look at while waiting for a haircut."
You've got to be a certain age to remember what it was like back then, before the days of the Internet, when, if you were a teenage boy, just getting possession of a Playboy was the miracle of miracles. More recently, there was just one Playboy among a pile of magazines that also included "Car & Driver" and "The Family Handyman" — the shop's way of keeping up with the times.
From 1952 until 1971, the shop was a block away on 15th Avenue Northwest. Then Louie bought the current property from a customer. It has a rental home that's still there, and Louie built the little barbershop in the yard adjoining it.
In those early days, Burkhardt remembers he and his buddies crowding inside, filling up the four or five chairs and spilling over to the window sill as they talked and joked and waited — sometimes for hours — for their turn.
The kids also knew that they'd go through an initiation period with Louie. He'd been in the Marines in World War II and saw action in Iwo Jima. He was tough.
Carol remembers how he told one young customer who was just getting facial hair and had a faint, fuzzy mustache, "Why don't you have the cat lick that off?"
The kid turned beet red. Then her dad turned to her and said: "Carol, grow your mustache out to show what a real one looks like. 'Oh, my God!' "
The daughter learned to deal with her dad. "I'd get (bleeped) and tell him to go (bleep) himself," she says, in that uncensored way you talk at Louie's.
Some getting used to
For dad and daughter, it was, as they say, a complicated relationship. "I loved my dad, but I also hated him sometimes," says Carol.
When Carol first began working at the shop, she hurt for customers.
For the guys, the notion of a woman barber took some getting used to.
Then some started switching from Louie to Carol. They noticed certain differences in their styles, like when Louie wanted you to move your head, he basically shoved it. Carol was considerably more gentle.
Jim Allen, 70, Ballard High, 1960, who still works running a screen printing business, remembers how Louie reacted when he switched to Carol:
"Louie wouldn't talk to me for three months, told me to go (bleep) off and die."
As the years passed, Carol shared the events of her life with the guys.
Two marriages, with one husband dying after being diagnosed with dementia. A third longtime relationship also ended.
She recently lost 25 pounds.
One of the guys said he thought she was less voluptuous. Carol says she replied: "I'm still voluptuous, just a little less of me."
She quite enjoys this kind of talk. "I don't like boring," she says. "Never act your age. You end up in the grave."
On Nov. 10, to celebrate her 60th birthday, and 60 years of the shop's existence, Carol had a big party at Louie's.
She has a regular customer base of 200, and around 90 showed up. There were a few wives, too, maybe to see who this Carol was who's been a part of their husbands' lives.
There was a barbecue outside with grilled Italian sausage, and tomato tarts, beer, wine.
Carol says she has no plans of retiring.
"They're family to me," she says.
It's good to know that some things, for a while, stay the same.
Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or firstname.lastname@example.org