The man sitting in the chair listened politely as Tiffany Lakes-Royal, owner of Arcade Barbers, cut his locks and lectured him about how badly damaged his hair was.
"I wouldn't let it go. At one point I asked him, 'Are you a swimmer?' and he says, really quietly, 'Yeah, I do a bit of swimming,'" Lakes-Royal recalls. "He left really happy, and as soon as he walks out the door, another client in the shop tells me the guy was the famous Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps. Everyone burst out laughing."
Visits from elite athletes may not be the norm at Arcade Barbers, located at 6 Nickels Arcade in Ann Arbor. But laughter and good conversation is.
And according to Lakes-Royal, these essential elements (in addition to good, affordable haircuts, of course), have played a big role in keeping Arcade Barbers thriving since 1917.
A cut above for over a century
Arcade Barbers is the oldest shop in Nickels Arcade, having been located there for the entire 102 years it's been in business.
Lakes-Royal has been the proprietor since 2001, although she's worked there since 1992. She bought the company from Russell Rutt, who owned the shop for 15 years. Prior to Rutt, the shop had passed through a number of other hands.
"When I walked into the shop for the first time, I was only 19. I felt like I had stepped right into a Norman Rockwell painting," Lakes-Royal says.
She quickly hit it off with Rutt and he became a mentor to her. Even after Rutt sold the business to her so he could retire with his then-ill wife, he would take the bus in from Jackson to help Lakes-Royal out. He treated her like family and she saw him as larger than life.
"One of his big things was to grab the newspaper every day as soon as it came out and read it in between haircuts," Lakes-Royal says. "He would read every single page and was always ready to talk about what was going on in the world. It made for some really interesting and unforgettable conversations with customers."
Rutt passed away several years ago, but Lakes-Royal says she thinks he'd enjoy studying the colorful mural or the Lego train set she had commissioned for the shop. She's confident that he'd also be happy about two other things: Customers can still get their hands on a daily newspaper at Arcade Barbers. And there's still continuous (and sometimes spicy) barbershop banter about sports, politics, family, and life in general.
"And he would see that I have still kept his golden rule of thumb, which is that the experience is always about the customer. Always," Lakes-Royal says.
Today, Lakes-Royal and her staff of eight are hard-pressed to find time to read while they're on the clock. She estimates the daily number of clients during the early '90s at around 10 to 12 per barber. The shop's barbers now service about 30 people each on any given day.
She attributes the growth to the shop being so easily accessible by foot and the proliferation of residential buildings nearby. Consistently excellent customer reviews and local awards over the years have also bolstered the shop's reputation.
"It can be positively insane here, but definitely never boring," Lakes-Royal says.
Committed to a continued community presence
During her many years with Arcade Barbers, Lakes-Royal has seen many clients come and go. However, many seem to find their way back. For her and her staff, one of the most rewarding and humbling parts of the job is when several generations of a family will return to get their hair cut.
"People will come back into town for homecoming or something, and maybe their fathers and grandpas got their haircuts with us. And now they want their own little ones to have the same experience," Lakes-Royal says.
Lakes-Royal has no plans for Arcade Barbers to slow down – although if the business grows any bigger, it will have to expand. She's already seriously considered that possibility multiple times.
"I feel at some point we might actually have to cross that bridge," she says. "I would never franchise, but I would be willing to open a satellite shop somewhere close by."
In the past, Lakes-Royal has spoken with her landlord about opportunities to knock out a wall and take over a space next door. The idea of doubling the shop's footprint, instead of relocating altogether, is the most attractive option for her.
"Leave? Heck no," she says. "We've been there forever and I love the space. We're not going anywhere and people can expect to see us around for many more years."
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.