A steady hand: Florence Barber Shop’s Mike Flynn retires after nearly 50 years

  • Mike Flynn gives a haircut and beard trim to Greg Smith of Williamsburg, above and below, at the Florence Barber Shop on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTOS/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Mike Flynn recently retired from the Florence Barber Shop but filled in for a shift on Wednesday, June 26, 2019, giving a haircut to longtime patron Greg Smith of Williamsburg. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Mike Flynn recently retired from the Florence Barber Shop but filled in for a shift on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 6/26/2019 4:12:13 PM

NORTHAMPTON — He has been called “the unofficial mayor of Florence,” and “a pillar of the community in Florence.”

“He was Florence,” said Greg Dibrindisi, speaking about Mike Flynn, his barber of 20 years.

After 45 years of running Florence Barber Shop at 9 North Maple St., Flynn retired last month, and while he still owns the place, many of his longtime customers are missing him already.

“Mike’s like family. I go to him every couple of weeks, and I don’t even see family members every week,” said Lee Mollins, who at 38 has been getting his hair cut by Flynn for 20 years. “I’ve been going to him for so long, he’s been a part of every big life event. When my father died, we talked about that. When I got married, we talked about that. When I had a daughter, we talked about that.”

“He was the only one I’d let cut my hair,” said Dibrindisi, a real estate agent with Century 21. “They’re all great people in the shop, but I always waited for Mike. No one could do it the way he could. He’s a great guy, and it’s strange going into the shop and not seeing him.”

Next to Florence Village Flower & Gift Shoppe, Flynn’s storefront displays a barber’s pole spinning behind the window. Inside, combs and hair gels crowd the countertops. Children’s board books are stacked alongside magazines in a bookshelf next to the line of chairs that make up the waiting area. Photos of Flynn’s grandchildren frame one mirror, while stickers promoting “Hamp” and support for American troops decorate another. Barbers and their customers talk over the noise of hair dryers and electric razors. During a moment of relative quiet, while a hairdresser uses a brush to sweep her customer’s shoulders, two televisions broadcast a competitive cooking show’s chatter.

On a sunny day mid-June, Flynn was at the shop — not to cut hair, but to talk about his time as a barber. Flynn has neat, short white hair. That day, he wore a long-sleeve blue button-down. At 74, he has seven grandchildren and three children with his wife, Carole. He remembered his career as a barber fondly, backing up most memories with exact figures — hours worked, years spent — searching for a particular number for a few seconds before recalling it precisely.

Started young

Flynn said he started working as a barber because he was bad at carpentry, which he studied at Smith Vocational School from 1959 to 1961. Seeing him struggle, Flynn’s uncle suggested that he enroll in barber school, and he did at age 16. After six months at Vaughn Barber School in Hartford, Flynn waited until his birthday to work. Back then, he said, a person had to be 17 to barber in Massachusetts (now the minimum age to get an apprentice barber’s license is 18), and he was only 16 when he graduated. He then apprenticed at Torpey and Gordon Barber Shop in Northampton for three months.

Flynn surmises that he was one of the youngest barbers in the state at the time. “Being 17, a lot of people didn’t trust me to cut their hair,” said Flynn. “I decided to join the Navy then, so I checked with the state to see, if I was a barber on a ship in the Navy, whether they would count that as my apprentice time, and they said they would as long as my company and captain verified that I worked 1,800 hours.”

So, he became a barber on the USS Little Rock and sailed the Mediterranean, Caribbean and North Atlantic. After he worked enough hours, he went to Boston and took the test to become a master barber. He passed and opened Florence Barber Shop in 1974.

Hairy times

The recession in the early-to-mid 1970s made business difficult for those first few years. But adding to this difficulty, for a barber, was a style trend that came with the tide of the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution and the hippie movement — men wearing their hair long.

“At first, it was just college students, so that was no problem,” Flynn said. “But then it became everyone. A fellow who got his hair cut every couple of weeks would get his hair cut every couple of years. So that kind of hurt.” Flynn credited his hard work and willingness to learn how to cut long hair, which other barbers disliked, to his making it through that tough time.

Before he retired, a typical day for Flynn started with him opening the shop at 7 a.m. Usually, people were waiting outside for him already. The other barbers would come in soon after that, and they would work until 5 p.m. It was busy all day long, Flynn said. Sometimes, he’d eat lunch, and other times he’d work straight through.

“Mike is one of the best bosses I’ve ever had,” said Karen Overstreet, who has been working at Florence Barber Shop for over 17 years. “He respects us all. You do your job, and you have no problem, you know?”

Flynn recalled some of the highs and lows of running the barbershop. The business has operated out of three locations, including its current one, all in Florence, where Flynn also lives. He had to move out of the second location because it burned down after someone tried to use a fireplace that had been hidden behind a wall.

The long hours, he said, could sometimes be taxing. But overall he liked his job. His youngest customer was a six-day-old baby, whose head he shaved with a straight razor; his oldest was 105 years old and a retired barber. TV host Rachel Maddow used to get her hair cut at Florence Barber Shop before she started spending her week in New York filming her show, Flynn said, adding that the barbershop isn’t open on weekends.

“I saw someone in a restaurant yesterday who congratulated me on my retirement, and I’ve been cutting his hair for 50 years,” Flynn said. “That’s what I’ll probably miss more than anything because your customers are your friends. Not the friend you’re going to see on Saturday night, but for 20 minutes, how’s your family, how’s your kids.

“And so many different conversations,” he continued. “Some people want to talk about politics, some people want to talk about travel — where they’re traveling — some people want to just listen to jokes.” Mollins credits Flynn with telling him every joke he knows, adding that Flynn’s jokes were “totally inappropriate.”

Flynn decided to retire because of his arthritis — the little aches and pains in his hands were becoming more frequent, he said — and also to spend more time traveling with his wife.

“We knew where to find Mike 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week, and he knew everything that was happening,” said Dibrindisi. “He was one of the longest-serving, most accessible people in the Florence community.”

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