Walnut Street Barber Shop has served Springfield since 1943.
Much of downtown Springfield has changed since the early 1940s. But one thing, with day-to-day, quiet consistency, has remained the same: Walnut Street Barber Shop, a stop that’s seen generations of men through its doors for more than 70 years.
“We’ve always just been here,” says owner Russell Gann, who purchased the shop from his father around 15 years ago. “I keep the prices low. I think that keeps it popular. I always try to keep it pretty much like it was when I found it. I haven’t changed a whole lot.”
Except for one thing: “I added a TV,” he says. “There wasn’t any TV in here when I came in.”
The shop’s history
A photograph of the barber shop from the 1940s proves that it went by another name — Vance’s — at one time. However, Gann says that period was very brief. (Courtesy of Walnut Street Barber Shop)
Little is known about the shop’s early history, other than that it was started by a man named Cecil Johnson — and, when it began, it was only one of many hair-cutting options in town.
“There used to be (barber) shops on every corner,” says Gann, a comment confirmed by the Springfield News-Leader in April 1990. According to a newspaper article, there were 170 similar shops in Springfield around 1960, 100 which were located downtown.
By the time the story was published 30 years later, there were just five left downtown. The shop on Walnut Street was one of them.
At the time, the shop was staffed by three barbers: Jim Nutter, Chester Ware and Leo Porter. The latter, says Gann, is one of the barbers few seem to forget.
“There’s been a handful of people come in and out of this place,” says Gann. “Pretty well-known barbers around here who kind of worked different shops and drifted through here.”
Three of the shop’s former barbers — Leo Porter, Jim Nutter and Chester Ware — are shown in 1990. (Courtesy of the Springfield News-Leader)
Gann came into the picture when his father, John Gann, purchased the shop in the early 1990s. It wasn’t long before the younger Gann began barbering at the shop, too, giving a unique opportunity to meet some of the faces who stood in his place years before.
“When I started here, they were really old,” he says of the former barbers. “They’d be like 120 years old now, but they’d stop by when I started here.”
While much about the Walnut Street shop has remained the same over time, its surroundings have evolved.
The shop saw downtown’s heyday, streets alive in the bustling business district. And, on the flip side, it was there during the district’s downturn when revitalization seemed a hopeless task.
“Nothing out there now was here when I started here,” says Gann. “Most of these buildings were empty, boarded up.”
But the shop survived. “We’ve always had a pretty good business,” he notes. “Just because it had been here, you know, all through that time and everybody knew it was here.”
And today, it’s still there.
But it does more than simply exist: Saturdays are bustling at the shop, with men waiting outside the door before it’s even officially open for the day.
One of those men is Brandon Bush, who began frequenting the shop in 2001. He started coming because of proximity — at the time, he worked downtown — but keeps returning for the experience.
“It’s a reasonable price for a good haircut,” he says. “Friendly people. Whether you’re out waiting to get your hair cut or sitting in the chair, there’s always conversation.”
That social aspect is one long perpetuated through local barber shops. It’s something Gann says is even reflected — no pun intended — by facing chairs away from the mirrors.
“Guys were facing this way and talking to people over here,” he says, indicating the row of chairs lined up against the opposite wall. But while it’s tradition, it’s not necessarily logical: Gann says he’s often questioned about the chairs’ direction — especially from foreign exchange students, who don’t understand immediately why someone would want to face away from the mirrors.
The shop today
Gann works with customer Bryler Unterbrink. That vacuum, used to suck up just-cut hair, is one of the things that the shop’s barbers say make them stand out from the crowd. “I don’t know how many shops do that,” says Gann. “They’ve always done it here.”
Within minutes of the shop’s opening, all three chairs are full. Buzzing, both of conversation and clippers, fills the room as the barbers go to work. Vintage photos of Walnut Street line the walls, and a coffee table — topped with reading material from baseball to Ansel Adams — entertains those who must wait.
One of those people is Stacy Workman, who has accompanied her husband on his recent visit to the shop. The couple began frequenting the business when they moved to Springfield around a decade ago, and have recruited nearly all of their family to go there, too. “They don’t treat them like ‘Next!’ she says, noting the personal touch that the shop’s barbers give customers.
And those customers, notes Gann, consist of many different faces. “We get a huge mix of people,” he says. “Really old men to college guys to Gothic skateboarder kids and everything in between.”
And while the shop hasn’t stayed completely in the past — evident by in-vogue styling products and even energy drinks sold from a cooler — Gann says perhaps people come in because of the shop’s consistency.
“I think that’s what people like about it,” he says. “‘Cause it’s just kind of old-timey. It’s always stayed the same.”
Want a haircut?
Walnut Street Barber Shop (205 E. Walnut St., Springfield; 417-831-3570) is open Tuesday – Friday from 7 a.m. – 5 p.m. and on Saturday from 7:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. Haircuts cost $10, and beard trims and shampoos are $4 each.