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Grosse Pointe Park

Park man celebrates his 50th anniversary as a barber, and has no plans to retire soon

August 14, 2013

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Grosse Pointe Park barber Bill Musial shares a laugh with longtime customer Jim Kastner, of Grosse Pointe Park, who won a free haircut from the barber during Musial’s anniversary party Aug. 6.

GROSSE POINTE PARK — He just marked his 50th anniversary as a barber, but William Joseph “Bill” Musial said it’s never felt like a job to him.

“I don’t come to work,” he said. “I open at 8:30 (a.m.) and my friends stop by … and before they leave, they give me money.”

Musial — better known as “Barber Bill” or “Bill the Barber” — commemorated this milestone with a community celebration Aug. 6, a day after the 50th anniversary of his successful completion of the barber exam. Hairstyles have changed over the years, but Musial — who turns 69 Aug. 28 — is still loving the career he selected almost by chance five decades ago.

“Everything has changed, and yet it’s still all the same,” he said from his shop while working on a recent afternoon. “In 50 years, I’ve watched haircuts go from short haircuts to long haircuts back to short haircuts … (but) men don’t change.”

On Aug. 6, dozens of friends and longtime customers — in many cases, they’re one and the same — dropped by to offer congratulations. The genial Musial — who has owned the William J.S. Hair Harbor at 15131 Kercheval in Grosse Pointe Park’s The Park business district for the last 29 years — engages everyone in the conversation, and that’s one of the things that customers enjoy about their visits.

Even after 50 years, “I still love it,” said Musial as he trimmed a longtime customer’s hair a few days before the anniversary party, swiftly and deftly snipping and combing. “My family tells me I chose the right profession, because as long as I’m cutting something, I’m happy.”

The younger child and only son in his family, Musial grew up in Memphis, Mich., and at his tiny high school, he said there were no school counselors to offer career advice. As the then-high school junior was about to select classes for his senior year, he said one of his teachers pulled him aside and said Musial needed to put together courses that would prepare him for college. But Musial didn’t want to go to college. He also knew he didn’t want to follow in his marine mechanic father’s footsteps, having worked for him in the summer and realizing that wasn’t for him.

That evening, Musial said, he stopped by the local barbershop for a haircut. He realized that the barber, Tony Ross, was slight, like the young Musial, who eventually grew to 5-feet-7-inches.

“I needed to find something my frame would suit,” Musial said. “I’m watching him, and he seems to be having a good time.” As he saw how animated Ross was as he engaged with his customers, a light bulb went off in Musial’s head, and he realized he’d found his calling.

Musial — who started barber school in October 1962 and completed the program less than a year later — said he took and passed his barber exam Aug. 5, 1963, at the Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit. He completed his apprenticeship in St. Clair and teamed with another barber at the Macomb Barbershop in Mount Clemens for about nine years, but he said, “I realized the only partner I wanted was the one I was married to.” And so, Musial moved on to a shop in Utica, where he rented a chair in a shop for a number of years before moving his business to the Park.

Growing up in Memphis, Detroit “was a million miles away,” he said. While he was in barber school, he shared an apartment on Detroit’s east side with three fellow students; it was only about three miles away from his Park location. Now, he and his wife, Cheri — who has owned the business next door, Pointe Pets Supply, for the last 19 years — divide their time between an apartment above their respective businesses, and a home on the water in East China Township.

Musial said he’s had some customers from his days at the Macomb County barbershops.

“These are not customers anymore,” he said. “Most people don’t have friends that long.”

Because he doesn’t take appointments — customers get their hair cut on a walk-in basis only — Musial said he doesn’t always know people by their last name. But one exception was someone he knew only by his last name — Mr. Hutton — a.k.a. Robert J. Hutton, the former president and chairman of Standard Federal Bank. Years ago, Musial was hoping to take out a loan to purchase his building in the Park, and he said Hutton offered to have someone contact him. The next day, Musial said the bank’s vice-president of commercial loans called to offer advice and assistance.

“That’s the way people have treated me for years,” said Musial.

It was customers who donated food and entertainment for his 50th anniversary — the band Banjos East performed outside the shop, to the delight of passers-by. In anticipation of the big day, Musial had also been collecting donations — to be divided between the local Full Circle Foundation and Capuchin Soup Kitchen — with one lucky donor receiving a free haircut. That customer, Jim Kastner, was Musial’s only official customer Aug. 6, and Musial — who gives free first haircuts to boys, including Kastner’s four now-grown sons — said his longtime customer joked that it had “taken him 29 years to get his first free haircut.” Musial also offers free haircuts for grooms, but for the first wedding only, he cautioned with a chuckle.

Musial doesn’t follow celebrity culture, so he doesn’t know if his customers are famous or not. When former Detroit Tigers pitcher Walt Terrell came into the shop, Musial said he didn’t even know who he was until a couple of awestruck kids asked him about the customer and told him who’d been occupying that chair.

“Every person deserves your respect,” Musial said.

Musial has also snipped the locks of more than a few city officials. He said he gave City Council member Daniel Grano one of the elected official’s first haircuts as a boy, and City Council member Daniel Clark occasionally drops in for a cut.

Park City Council member James Robson has been getting his hair cut by Musial for about 25 years now, and he said the shop is a place where information is exchanged about what’s going on locally.

“This is kind of like the small town barbershop,” said Robson. “The best thing he’s probably brought (to the Park) is a small town flavor and essence. Everybody comes to Bill’s barbershop and has a casual conversation. … I think Bill has tremendous power.”

Musial said he and the councilman “both want the best for the community,” and Robson agreed.

Son Bill Richard Musial was only able to visit briefly — he said he had to fly back to Atlanta in less than two hours — but, “I couldn’t miss this,” he said of his father’s anniversary celebration. He and his sister, Bonnie Jones, of Novi, purchased an authentic barber pole for their dad’s milestone, and it was immediately placed in the shop window Aug. 6.

“We always joked around that until I moved away, he’s the only one who ever cut my hair,” Bill R. Musial said. Even now, whenever he’s in town, he said his dad cuts his hair, as well as his son’s hair.

That’s not to say his father didn’t let his son experiment with different hairstyles, though. Bill R. Musial said long hair on men was popular when he was in high school. His father warned him that it wouldn’t look good on him — the Musial men have wavy locks — but his son insisted, and he said his dad complied, trimming just the top and sides somewhat and enabling his son to grow a mullet-like style.

“It was the worst haircut I ever had,” Bill R. Musial now admits with a laugh, recalling how his curly hair created a bump in the back. “(My dad) just kept cutting my hair (the way I wanted) until I realized how stupid I looked.”

He’s kept his hair short ever since, he said.

That’s not the only lesson the younger Musial learned from his father.

Bill R. Musial said his dad taught his children, “If you find something you love to do, you never really have to find a job. If you find something you love that much, it’s easy to come to work every day.”

The younger Musial, who has owned his Atlanta ad agency for 25 years now, said he took those words to heart.

“I followed in his footsteps: I do what I love,” he said.

Musial the barber credits his longevity in a job that keeps him on his feet all day with 35 years of running, including nine marathons — the Boston Marathon among them — and several half-marathons. He took first place for his age group, males 65-69, in the 2009 Detroit Free Press/Flagstar half-marathon, and he earned third place honors in the same category and race in 2010. Musial runs about five days a week.

People don’t just come to see “Bill the Barber” for a trim. Frank Kern, of Grosse Pointe Park, who’s been coming to the shop for about the last 10-15 years, said these visits are “better than reading the newspaper. You want to know what’s really going on, just talk to Bill.”

But whatever you do, don’t refer to the shop as a “salon.”

“Don’t call it a salon,” a horrified Kern said. “This is a barbershop. This is the real deal. This is where men hang out.”

The décor in the single-chair barbershop — most of it items given to Musial by customers — reflects local culture, from a map of the Great Lakes and an overhead photo of the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club harbor, to a photo of legendary Detroit Tiger Kirk Gibson hitting a home run during the 1984 World Series. The GPYC photo has particular significance to Musial — unbeknownst to the photographer, Musial’s father was working at the club that day, and the barber points out his late father’s truck in the parking lot.

Promising young ballplayer Matthew Torlone, 15, of Grosse Pointe Park, has been getting his hair cut by Musial from the beginning.

“It’s nice conversation,” the teen said, as Musial gave him a trim.

That’s something most of the customers seem to appreciate. Jim Beauvais, of Detroit, a customer for about 20 years, said he used to bring a book to Musial’s shop while he was waiting, but he quickly abandoned that, as he joined in discussions with Musial and other customers.

“It’s almost like a dinner table, where everyone is participating in the conversation,” he said.

Beauvais said he and Musial “swap kid stories, grandkid stories.”

“He is an amazing man,” he said. “Not only is he quite talented in his profession, but he is a genuinely nice man. And he loves his grandkids.”

Beauvais and Musial shared a hearty embrace as Musial marked his 50th year of cutting hair, and it’s clear the barber’s relationship with his customers runs deep. He makes home visits when clients are too ill to stop by the shop anymore, and if there was one thing he could share with the community, Musial said it was that he’d ask family members to let him know when his customers pass away, so that he can pay his respects to people who’ve become much more than clients to him.

After 50 years in the business, Bill R. Musial estimates his father has probably served more than 1,000 clients over his career.

“Our whole life, no matter where we go, my dad knows somebody,” he said, pointing out that they’ve run into people who know his father at Disneyland and a resort in Jamaica.

Barbering isn’t the only significant anniversary Musial’s marking this year: On Sept. 14, he said he and wife, Cheri, will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. To celebrate, the couple is heading to California this fall to visit wineries. His son and daughter-in-law, and possibly his daughter and her husband, plan to join them.

But while Musial is hoping to take a bit more vacation time in the future, he has no plans to retire.

“I still love it,” he said. “If I’m not here for a week, I miss it.”

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