Melvin “Mel” Mack knew he wanted to do something that would allow him to be his own boss one day.
So the Oklahoma native who grew up in San Leandro quit his job at the Leslie Salt Company, went to barber college and started his career in 1960 cutting hair and maintaining a non-stop conversation about sports.
He just retired on Jan. 1 after spending the last six years at Manteca’s In The Cutz Barber Shop – ending a 52-year career to travel and relax and focus on catching up on the things he’s missed.
“There just wasn’t anything out there like it – I liked the people and the fact that you get to know them and what it is that they like and the atmosphere is great,” Mack said. “I like working with people and it’s a comfortable environment. It was a way to provide for my family without having to do the back-breaking work that I started out doing and have fun at the same time.
“It’s something that I’m going to miss.”
Throughout his five decades standing behind the chair Mack owned three of his own barber shops in the Bay Area. He made it a point to keep up on each of the major sports and other current events so he could keep the lively conversation and banter going.
That environment, he said, is unfortunately dying out with the last of the true barber shops. More places like In The Cutz, he said, need to preserve that legacy that has always provided men a place to come and get their hair cut and get that personal service that sets the establishments apart.
“They’ve always been a men’s hangout – they’re truly the last bastion,” Mack said. “You look around today and there are all of these salons that will cut your hair for $9. I don’t fault ‘em for that, but there’s a place for quality and I’ll put my barber skills up against them any day.”
And wherever men gather, discussions are bound to break out – more than likely focusing on sports and who beat who and which pitcher is the greatest and who can knock out who.
It’s one of the things, Mack says ,that made the environment so much fun – especially for an avid sports fan like him that never shied away from a chance to shoot the breeze.
He even got his chance to meet one of the greats from one of his favorite sports.
An avid boxing fan that grew up listening to Joe Louis fights on a Zenith radio with his father, Mack began cutting the hair of a young up-and-coming fighter that would eventually introduce him to Oscar De La Hoya.
The autographed posters and boxing gloves that at one time were conversation pieces in his shop now adorn his living room and serve as a reminder of a career spent providing a service that he took great pride in.
When he made the move to Manteca after his mother passed away to take advantage of cheap housing, he ended up landing his job at In The Cutz only because the owner had seen the cut he gave his great-nephew and was impressed with the work.
Making the jump to the youth-oriented establishment was different than what he was used to, but his skills as a barber allowed him to adapt to the situation with ease.
And the respect that he earned from the owner, and the young customers that demanded perfection, made him emotional to think about.
He’s not even sure he can completely walk away from something that has taken up the majority of his life.
“It makes you feel good, you know?” Mack said – wiping his eyes. “When I came in I brought in the customers that I had from the other place I worked at – I brought in business with me and I liked the old guys. But as a barber you have to know how to keep up and to know my work stood up is a good feeling.
“It was a good run, and when I left the owner told me that there was always a chair for me there. I might have to take him up on that – put in one day each week. I don’t get around like I used to, so why not?”