Matt Driscoll

The price of progress in Tacoma: Barbershop dating back to 1934 to close its doors for good

6th Ave barber shop to close as rents rise

Matt McKenna will close his 6th Avenue barber shop after 16 years because the building was sold and his rents are being tripled while he still charges $11 for a haircut.
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Matt McKenna will close his 6th Avenue barber shop after 16 years because the building was sold and his rents are being tripled while he still charges $11 for a haircut.

Matt McKenna’s barbershop, in a long, narrow storefront on Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue, is a bit crowded Thursday morning.

The seats arranged around the refurbished, 1900s-era Theo A. Kochs Co. barber’s chair are mostly full. McKenna’s 6-year-old granddaughter occupies one, as she often does. On another is curled up Danny Boy — a purebred, tricolor border collie that, despite is breed, is missing the white.

All but one of the rest contain men awaiting their turns in the Kochs, where Brian Hoff now sits getting what little hair he has left trimmed.

Actually, it appears the “waiting” might be the real draw. Tom Lane, 84, lightly strums an acoustic guitar. Joe Hallberg, a retired Tacoma middle school teacher, sits near the window, slowly turning the pages of a newspaper.

None of them appear to be in a hurry. Instead, they seem to be relishing the experience, soaking up as much of it as they can.

It’s a scene that has repeated itself throughout the week, for good reason.

By the end of the month, all of it will be gone — for good.

The barbershop, which McKenna has owned and operated since 2005 — and dates back to 1934, which, coincidentally, is the year Hallberg was born — will close its doors.

What will eventually take its place remains uncertain, though one thing is clear: Whatever it is, it won’t be like this.

It’s a familiar story, underscoring the price of progress in Tacoma. As the city changes, quintessential gems like Matt McKenna’s barbershop are increasingly lost.

“I was walking, and I saw the little shop. I was just looking for a barber,” recalls Hoff, who’s now been coming back to McKenna’s shop for nearly a decade. “After a while, I just got used to his BS.”

It’s a bit of good-natured ribbing — as common here as the smell of hair tonic and blue barbicide — that inspires laughs from all around.

In late October, the building that houses McKenna’s barbershop — which also includes Shakabrah Java and Tacoma Thrift and Consignment — was sold to a Seattle-based investment company for a price just shy of $1 million. Shakabrah will stay put, but the thrift store and McKenna’s barbershop won’t.

For nearly a decade, McKenna has rented the space for $575 a month, raising his prices just once during that time. He’s now charging $11 a haircut, cash only. He lives south of Roy, not far from Harts Lake, driving 330 miles a week round-trip to cut his customers’ hair.

The new owner wants $1,600 a month, McKenna says. That’s “10 haircuts a day, every day, for three weeks” just to make the rent, he says. While that’s market rate (or perhaps even below it), for a barber like McKenna, the math simply doesn’t work.

“It’s definitely the end of an era,” Lane says between chords on the guitar. “Pretty sad, really.”

For a shop that long predates McKenna’s arrival, and even his birth, it’s no understatement. First opened by Italian immigrant James P. Luzzi in 1934, eventually under the name Feather Edge, the barbershop at 2614 Sixth Avenue has been an institution for as long as just about anyone can remember.

A commemorative sign now hangs on the wall, remembering Luzzi as a barber from a time when they wouldn’t just give haircuts, they’d also perform minor surgeries. The sign indicates that Luzzi, who died in 1982, would often “tell stories of bloodletting with leeches, removal of moles and minor tooth extractions.”

Naming his shop after a popular haircut of the era, Luzzi ran his shop until retirement in 1967. In the time since, it has been owned and operated under various names by at least seven barbers.

McKenna was predated by Rueben “Bill” Powell, who held down the shop from 1991 until 2005, when McKenna — who had previously worked as a welder, printer, machinist and carpenter — took over for him.

Originally, Powell served as a mentor to McKenna, who at the time had recently graduated from barber school at Bates Technical College.

“Old Bill,” as he’s nostalgically referred to, passed away in 2011, though even now there are customers who remember him well.

So does McKenna.

“Bill was funny. He used to say, ‘So how do you want your hair today, sir? Short or medium?’ And the longer he talked, the shorter it got,” recalls McKenna. “People loved him. They loved his personality, and came back to him for years.”

The same has held true for McKenna. That’s partially due to the haircuts, but it likely has more to do with his personality.

“You’re never going to get rich being a barber, you know?” McKenna says. “But I like people, and I like being my own boss.”

McKenna says he harbors no ill will toward the building’s new owner.

“It’s his money, and he can do what he wants,” he says.

But what will be lost when McKenna hangs up his clippers hasn’t been far from the minds of his many longtime customers.

“Tacoma is a hardworking place. It’s the gritty city, so we’re a blue-collar type crowd, and it’s funny, we’ve got a lot of new Tacomans that aren’t exactly like that,” says Daniel Sibbett, who works in the trucking industry, shortly before it’s his turn in McKenna’s chair.

“It’s nice to come to an old spot. You come in here, and it’s every walk of life. But at the end of the day, we have more in common than we have differences, and it’s nice to come to a place that will physically remind you of that.”

Asked what he’ll do next, McKenna says he isn’t sure — though he insists he’s not worried.

“The Lord has always provided for me,” he says. “I’ll be 58 in January. My plan was to work until 62, and then do like Bill did — and get a barber from Bates, train him, and work maybe a couple days a week.

“But that’s not how it’s going to work out. Times just change.”

That’s true.

And so does Tacoma — for better or worse.

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.