Toolin’ Around Town: Petaluma barber Al Kelp retires
A big change is in store for the corner of Petaluma Boulevard North and Corona Road. While it’s not on as grand a scale as the flooding that periodically paralyzes the area, or the 1982 reconfiguration aligning Corona with Skillman Lane to form a four-way intersection, it’s still historically significant.
By mid-October, after 72 years at the same location, Al’s Barber Shop will no longer anchor the site where generations of Petalumans have enjoyed an atmosphere of lively conversation, fishing reports, tall tales and good grooming.
After 60 years of keeping up with the latest hairstyles, since the time of Brylcreem, Vitalis, pomade and other greasy kid stuff — from buzz cuts, crew-cuts, flattops and fades — 84-year-old Al Kelp is putting away his clippers. The Al’s sign has already come down, but the location’s long tradition in barbering will continue under the renamed Authentic’s Barbershop.
“I’ve decided it’s time to retire and turn the business over to someone else,” said Kelp, who joined his father, also named Al, at the business in 1962. “During my recovery from a shoulder injury I realized I’m at the point I should retire while I’m still sharp and alert. I’ve got a thousand things I want to do.”
While manning a barber’s chair was Al’s day job, he’s stayed active with hobbies as varied as buying cars, boats and airplanes for his personal use and to fix up and resell, fishing for abalone, salmon and albacore in our coastal waters and flying his family to Disneyland for vacations.
He and his brother David, the sons of a Navy chief warrant officer, were born in Long Beach and raised in Santa Rosa where the athletic and physically fit Al took part in gymnastics and acrobatics, and was a member of the Santa Rosa High diving team. He graduated in 1957 and went on to work as a fry cook, before accepting more strenuous jobs, such as cleaning out chicken houses and baling hay. He later moved to Seattle, where he worked in sheet metal fabrication before joining the Navy.
“My dad opened Al’s Barber Shop in 1950 on a piece of land he paid $5,000 for,” said Kelp. “When I got out of the Navy, he encouraged me to try barbering. I joined him in March and he died in May. David and I then ran the shop together for seven years until he moved to Oregon.”
Kelp met his wife, Alice, while out dancing at Little Switzerland in Sonoma.
“We were married for nearly 60 years when she died last year,” he said.
When they married, the Kelps lived in a tiny house behind the barbershop, but soon went looking at a rental on Weaverly Drive. When the owner offered to sell it for $17,000, Al agreed and began making the $100 monthly mortgage payment.
“When I started out, haircuts were $2,” Kelp said. “On those wages, I bought a house, and new cars and my wife could stay home and raise our kids, Vincent, Vaughn and Victoria. Most of my customers were ranchers and construction workers that wanted to look clean-cut. Professional businessmen, who needed a haircut that never changed, came in every week.
“The football team from Sonoma State all got flattops,” he continued. “Customers didn’t have to tell me what they wanted. When they came in, I knew exactly what they wanted. They’d sit down and talk about all the interesting things they’ve done. I learned to let my customers do the talking. I gained a lot of knowledge. It was a really a fascinating life.”
When longer hairstyles became fashionable and business dipped, Al started looking for supplemental income.
“I’m a car lover,” he explained, “I love big American-made cars. I’d buy cars and if I didn’t like them, I’d trade them in. In 1975, when the longer hairstyles put a dent in our business, I turned the space behind the shop into a used car lot. I started buying cars at the Bay Cities car auction, which I’d clean up and fix up and resell. I put out a lot of stuff for the young guys.”
Occasionally, he encountered problems associated with the shop’s proximity to Willow Brook, which ran behind his property.
“When that massive flood submerged us in the early 1980s, I just moved out of my shop. We dried the place out and reopened in two weeks,” he said. “In 1982, when Corona Road was altered, we remodeled and added windows to the south side.”
Keeping busy has never been a problem for Al. He has a list of ambitious projects lined up, most of them requiring tools, time and expertise.
“I’m still a licensed pilot,” he reminded me, “I like airplanes, yachts and cars. I own a fully equipped 33-foot cruiser with a 12-foot beam that I’m working on and if I’m feeling pretty healthy, I might get another airplane. I like to buy them, fix them, fly them and sell them. The same with boats.”
As for the future of barbering in the location his father started, Kelp feels the new owner is the right person to carry on the trade.
“The new owner, Danny Pacheco, has a vision on the way he wants the place to look,” he said. “He’s a very positive young man.”
Pacheco, who operates Authentic’s Barbershop on Edith Street, has been barbering for more than a decade. His goal is to carry on the spirit and the legacy established by Al, and to keep the tradition of the old-style barbershop alive.
After 72 years, it’s the end of an era for Al’s Barber Shop. From crew-cuts to Cadillacs and flattops to Fords, it became a landmark. Al Kelp is moving on.
“Toolin’ Around Town” runs the second and third Friday of the week in the Argus-Courier. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.