Independent barber shops? Rare today. Female barbers (not stylists, mind you)? Rarer still. There will be one less of each when Donna Bybee pulls the door shut behind her at Triangle Barber Shop, 2322 21st St. Friday evening, for the last time, after 34 years in business.
Word has spread all fall through her network of longtime customers: “Did you hear that Donna’s is retiring? Where are we going to get our hair cut?”
Denial turned to reality as she started taking artifacts down. The barber pole outside is gone. The second barber’s chair that had not been used for more than 30 years is gone. The photos of her grandchildren and customers from the law enforcement community are gone. The magazine racks are gone. The old-fashioned soda machine is gone. Fishing and hunting trophies are gone. The loom she whiled away her free time between haircuts is gone.
Bybee’s start in the profession was as improbable as her status as the successful female proprietor of a barber shop. She was going through the attic in her grandmother Delia Belden’s home in Oak Creek when she found a box filled with barber tools. They belonged to a grandfather she never knew. She asked about them and Belden jokingly said, “Take them home and cut your dad’s hair.”
She learned her profession at Milwaukee Area Technical College and apprenticed at a shop in Brookfield and at DeMark’s Forum barber shop in Racine. Bybee and her husband, Jeffrey, married and moved to Racine in 1978. A few years later Jeffrey found a newspaper item that Ray Michalak was selling his shop, then known as Ray’s Triangle Barber Shop, which he had built in 1965 on a vacant triangular lot.
The Bybees, Donna’s parents and grandmother drove past the shop, which Jeffrey had heard was “the nicest barber shop in town.” When they went inside, Belden asked Michalak, “How much will it take to hold the shop for my granddaughter?” He replied, “$100 and a handshake.” Belden sealed the deal.
Bybee recalls, “No one asked me anything, and it happened. Ray worked in the morning. We signed papers at lunch, Donna started in the afternoon!” Her first customer on May 26, 1983? Belden, of course. Bybee put a photo of Belden and one of her father, Victor Fucile, on the big mirror in the shop for her last day of cutting hair.
Perhaps the hardest part of the road to retirement was her customers’
lamenting her decision. “I’m not going to miss the building, but I’m going to miss the people. I’ve had 34 good years here. No paid vacation, no insurance, but that’s alright. I’ve always enjoyed what I did. I never hated coming to work.”
Not everyone who stopped in the shop was there for a haircut. One drop-in was Mary Jensen, who lives across the street. Jensen would get egg rolls once a week for them to eat for lunch.
“Now we can sit there (at the restaurant) and have lunch!” says Bybee.
One customer did not know of her pending retirement because he came in for his first Bybee haircut only this week.
“Wow! This is the best haircut I ever got. I’ll see you next year!” he exclaimed.
“No, you won’t. This is your one and only” was Bybee’s reply.
What else could she say? After all, it’s time for her to spend more time traveling and with her grandchildren. It is safe to assume, though, that she will still cut their hair.
There is one lingering mystery in Bybee’s story. When asked if she really did cut her father’s hair that day with her grandfather’s barber tools she says she does not remember.