Haircuts and Conversations

by Caitlyn May

Tucked away in a hidden corner of the Oregon State University Campus Memorial Union, a new business is thriving. University Cuts has only been open under new owner Jen, for little more than a month but has already built a loyal customer base of students and professors alike.

“What’s most surprising is how quickly it’s picked up. Just the positive word of mouth is really spreading,” Jen shared with the Advocate. Offering its services at reasonable rates, University Cuts has drawn the attention of the campus community with Jen noting that her customers cover a wide spectrum. “I have a lot of college kids come in because we’re right here but I also have bookstore staff. The other day I had a professor come in.”

Jen’s passion for her customers is a deeply rooted trait passed down to her from her father, Mel. In a five-chair shop, not all that different from the shop currently manned by his daughter, Mel invited students in for a friendly cut and shave. “Where the post office boxes are now, he had a shop there and started here in the M.U,” she shared, going on to note that while her father’s shop eventually dwindled down to just one or two chairs, the family business was not in jeopardy.

In 1971, Mel christened a shop with his own moniker. Located on Circle Blvd., Mel’s Barber Shop offered the same customer service as the five-chair shop at OSU and still stands there today, its chair open to anyone looking for a quality hair cut. While little has changed in the way of customer service at Mel’s, the original owner no longer commands the post. Today, it is Jen’s husband, Ari. “My dad talked me into taking over Mel’s, so I finished school for that in 2000,” Jen explained. Originally having attended school to earn her degree as a lawyer, Jen quickly found herself immersed in the family business when Ari finished school and joined her and her father at Mel’s. However, after just a year, Mel ventured out into Philomath, opening another shop, The Clip Joint, in 2001. “He was supposed to retire,” Jen emphasized, adding, “But he didn’t.”

After mentoring his daughter for a year, Mel had left Jen and Ari to the shop on Circle Blvd. “At first we had it that my husband worked in the morning and I worked in the afternoon so that one of us was home with the kids,” Jen stated. She went on to say, “But when I got pregnant with the fourth kid, I said that was enough and I stayed home.”

While motherhood called her from her career for a brief moment, the siren song of the family business soon lured Jen back. “This opportunity came up, to have a shop here at OSU and so we took it,” she explained. While Ari admits it was nice to have his wife back at work instead of popping into Mel’s, Jen was equally excited about the new space and with her youngest child just 21 months, she jumped back into the business of cutting hair with the lessons she learned from her father. “I just try and be involved with everyone and really listen to their stories.”

And listen to their stories she does. From the classes students are taking, to the pressures of a new job, Jen remembers each customer, as do Ari and Mel. Each conversation begins where it left off, like with old friends.

Jen points out various mementos customers have bestowed upon her. In the two-chair shop where students mill around, she gestures to a painting proudly displayed on the wall. It was given to her by a Colonel who often frequents the month-old shop. “He retired from the military and I think it’s funny that he, you know, stayed around. He comes in because he really likes the campus atmosphere and so that’s a painting he gave us. It’s an F-15 that he flew.”

After opening at 10 a.m. Jen has a line at her door only an hour later and just 12 hours after Ari closed shop at Mel’s and the lights went out in the shop in Philomath with both Ari and Mel serving their fair share of customers. First in line, a young student that Jen calls “a repeat.”

“I’ve cut you before!” she exclaims, remembering the trouble she and the young man had coming to a decision over the length of his hair. However, her customer is sure to remind her that she did a perfect job and it’s why he’s returned. It is the same service both Mel and Ari offer at Mel’s and The Clip Joint. A face is never forgotten, a conversation hardly left to chance.

The passion all three feel for their customers is a core component of their trio of businesses and one thing, among others, they feel is crucial to their success. As for the other things, according to Jen, the family of shops is some of the few to offer an authentic hot lather neck shave and massage.

While all three shops are walk in only, the family is excited to see the upbeat in business and continue to look towards the future. “If my children get a four year degree and prove they can be responsible than I would let them come into this business,” Jen explained noting that when Mel finally retires, she and Ari have no plans of taking over The Clip Joint, but can’t rule out that the shop would still fall into the family’s hands. “Maybe, one of my kids will be working there.”

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