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Monday, July 20, 2015

Jim O'Neill, Local Barber 47 Years and Counting

Jim O'Neill, owner of Jim O'Neill's Barber Shop on S. Fort Thomas Ave.

Jim O'Neill has been cutting hair for 47 years. Licensed at 20 and self-employed in Fort Thomas at 21, O'Neill, owner and sole employee at Jim O'Neill's Barber Shop on S. Fort Thomas Ave., has cut men's hair through decades of styles and generations of families, and has made lifelong friendships as a result.

O'Neill graduated from Covington Barber College, valedictorian of his class. He laughs, talking about the relative ease of bar exams and CPA exams compared to having to "shave a guy with a straight razor" in order to pass. Upon graduation O'Neill had to work as an apprentice, first in Bellevue then in Fort Thomas. But he knew he never wanted to work for anyone else so when the opportunity to rent opened up in the Midway District in Fort Thomas in 1968, O'Neill opened up his own barber shop.

Ten years later, in 1978, he went to "by appointment only"—because of men getting perms. (Perms took so long, O'Neill says, "by appointment only" became a necessity.) In 1981 the building O'Neill is now in went up for sale. He bought it, and although he's recently switched sides, he's been there ever since.

In 47 years, O'Neill has witnessed changing times, changing styles. In the late 1960s, flat tops were popular—a style three clients still request to this day. It's buzzed on the side, squared off and top cut. Then, thanks to the Beatles, came long-hair styles—along with phone calls from upset parents. "My rule is to make the guy in the chair happy," O'Neill says, thinking back to those calls.

The 1980s brought the feather haircut. It required no talent, O'Neill says, and the cut was requested so often he lamented that he could do it in his sleep. O'Neill talks about the shag, and the mohawk, which, by the way, is harder to cut than it looks, he says. He talks about the numbers he would shave into the backs of the heads of the students on the Highlands High School sports' teams. "Forty fours or 77s are fine," he says. "But don't come in here with an 88. Too many curves," he laughs. He talks about the "clever" drunks that would come in, before he went to appointment-only, and a little boy who once told him "the last time I was here my hair grew back so this time you better do it right."

I ask O'Neill about talent and how one adjusts to changing times, changing styles. He mentions magazines and, more recently, videos, but even though he's not saying it it's clear—the man is good at what he does.

At 67, O'Neill's own head of hair is near perfect. His daughter, Heather O'Neill Steinhauser, who is a stylist and nail tech at The Nest, cuts it for him. O'Neill also mentions a product he's used for 25 years called Nioxin, promising that he's not trying to advertise it but that "there's no heredity reason I should have this much hair." 

O'Neill looks fun, with his button-down shirt covered in surfboards and his shop filled with Laurel and Hardy memorabilia—87 pieces, although some went to storage when he moved his shop to the smaller space next door.

Laurel and Hardy memorabilia fill his O'Neill's barber shop.

He's funny, too. A lifelong fan of comedy, O'Neill grew up going to comedy acts at Beverly Hills Supper Club—think Phyllis Diller. Years later he and his wife took a class at Funny Bone Comedy Club and for several years performed their act in front of 300-plus crowds. This, from a man who says he once was shy, but got over it rather quickly. "The world's not for the shy," he says.

O'Neill sometimes tests this theory, still to this day, by approaching someone intimidating. He talks to them, just as he talks and has talked to his clients for the past 47 years. I ask him if he views himself as part therapist. He says his wife thinks so, although he disagrees. But O'Neill has a way with words. The marquee outside his front door often holds humor-filled phrases.

A replica of the leg lamp from the movie, "A Christmas Story," as well as a bucket of pens—O'Neill says he's given more than 10,000 pens away in his 47 years of business.

O'Neill's small shop also contains a 300-pound American Indian statue he bought in Waynesville, Ohio, a beaded curtain featuring parrots, a toaster signed by Heywood Banks and a replica of the leg lamp from the movie "A Christmas Story." Jimmy Buffett music is playing throughout our interview. He points to a Snoopy phone, gifted to him in 1978. He still uses it to take appointments.

Twenty years ago O'Neill and his wife, Peggy, a retired nurse, bought a condo in Myrtle Beach. They love it down there and already he has taken five weeks of vacation this year. O'Neill enjoys spending time with his grandchildren and great-grandchild. He works three to three-and-a-half days each week—he's not looking for new business or to expand. Rather he simply wants to reach his goal of cutting hair for 50 years—maybe more.

In many Fort Thomas families O'Neill is currently cutting three generations of men and boys' hair—some, four generations. A couple men have stuck with him since the beginning and have been seeing O'Neill for 47 years.

O'Neill and his wife live in Cold Spring. They have two grown daughters, one of whom lives in Fort Thomas (Steinhauser). O'Neill's mother was a beautician—she owned and operated Maureen's Beauty Salon in Bellevue, KY. Perhaps it was his mother, Maureen O'Neill who inspired him. It also could have been Paul Davis—O'Neill says as a child he would walk by three or four barbers in Dayton, Ky., just to get a buzz cut from Davis.

Regardless, O'Neill knew early on what he wanted to do for a living and still, to this day, he says he loves doing it. How rare—and wonderful—to be so content, for 47 years. Talent plays its (large) part. But I also think a lot of O'Neill's success has to do with O'Neill himself.

When I ask about friendships, O'Neill mentions the vacations he's been invited on, the weddings he's been invited to. He won't admit to being therapist, but he readily admits to being a friend to the many men who see him, every four weeks, year after year. He's watched boys grow up, styles change, and he's listened and given advice, all with a lot of talent, a dose of humor and a personal rule of making the guy in the chair happy—as any good barber, should.

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