Burton’s Barber Shop celebrates its 125th anniversary
By Steven Hoffman
“I have 62 years on this chair,” Bob Burton explains as he trims the hair of Mike Vining on a sunny afternoon in October. “My father had 65 years in the chair.” Burton pauses, as if contemplating the amount of time and work he and his father put into the family business through the years, and then continues: “I started here in 1955, and I still like cutting hair. Time goes by fast when you’re having fun.”
A lot of fun has certainly been had at Burton’s Barber Shop at 105 West State Street in Kennett Square through the years. Vining is a regular here. There are a lot of regulars. Vining comes, first and foremost, for the haircut. But the good conversations that take place in Burton's Barber Shop are also a reason to return again and and again.
“I can’t imagine anyone not having a good time here,” Vining explains as Burton finishes up with his haircut. “He has great interaction with all his customers.”
Stopping by Burton's Barber Shop for a haircut isn't simply about taking care of a necessary chore—it's an opportunity to connect and converse with a friend.
Burton’s Barber Shop is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year, and on Saturday, Nov. 11, the community is invited to stop by and celebrate with Burton and his team. There will be some catered food and beverages and lots of good conversation—of course.
Burton is happy to be sharing the anniversary with his customers and local residents.
“I’m a Kennett Square person,” he explained. “I’ve lived or worked on this street my whole life.”
Burton is now 80, and he is as enthusiastic as ever about the work. His days start as early as 4 a.m. or 5 a.m.
“I like coming into the barber shop now as much as I ever did,” Burton said. “I wake up in the morning and I’m ready to work.”
There has always been a Burton running the shop, starting with Amos Burton—Bob’s grandfather—who first opened Burton’s Barber Shop in 1892. The shop was at a different location then, but it was still on State Street—it has always been on State Street. In 1911, Harry “Dooney” Burton—Bob’s uncle—joined the business. Then Joseph Malcolm “Bat” Burton—Bob’s father—started cutting hair in 1917.
“They all had nicknames back then,” Bob explains.
The shop has always been known as either Burton’s Barber Shop or Burton Brothers for a time when Bat and Dooney ran it together. The consistency and history is part of the barber shop's charm.
When Burton was a young child, he loved coming into the barber shop to watch his father work.
“I was always in there,” he said, explaining that he would carefully hold the tools of the trade and pretend that he was giving a customer a haircut. His two older brothers never had any interest in the barber shop and pursued different careers., but Burton never wanted to do anything but take over the business.
Burton remembers a time when he was in high school and a guidance counselor called him into the office to discuss his plans after graduation. He told the guidance counselor that all he wanted to do was work at the barber shop with his father. Burton explained that the guidance counselor said, ‘All right, I don’t need to talk to you then. You’re good.’
Burton has seen many different changes in hairstyles since he earned his barber license and started working alongside his father. He went through the Beatles-inspired mop-top phase, the bowl-cuts, the crewcuts, the mullets, and the times when long hairstyles for men were popular.
“The styles always change,” Burton said, explaining that when he started in the business, men would get their hair trimmed every two weeks. But by the 1960s and 1970s, men were letting their hair grow much longer. It made it much more difficult for barber shops to stay in business, and many closed. Burton's Barber Shop endured—and thrived, despite the cyclical changes in the business.
At one time, Burton’s had six chairs and would be busy throughout the week. There was a time when men didn’t usually shave themselves—they would go to a barbershop for that service. The shopkeepers in town would close up in the evening on Saturday night and line up for trims and shaves so that they would be ready for Sunday. Burton quickly grew accustomed to the long, 13- or 14-hour days, just as his father did. The dedication of the owner always was an important part of the success of the shop.
One constant throughout Burton’s many years in the business is that the barbershop has always been a hotspot for sports talk, especially baseball. The shop is a shrine to local baseball history, featuring all kinds of memorabilia celebrating the National Pastime. Bat Burton was one of the founders of the Kennett Old Timers Baseball Association back in the early 1970s, and Bob Burton has been the organization’s longtime president. The organization honors local baseball standouts. Burton has pictures of his grandfather, who played for the local Kennett and Mohicans teams. Amos Burton has the distinction of catching games that were pitched by two Major League Hall of Famers—Herb Pennock and Ed Walsh. Pennock, a Kennett Square native and a top pitcher on the Philadelphia Athletics, the Boston Red Sox, and the New York Yankees teams between 1912 and 1934, frequently visited his hometown and would bring Major League players with him—including Babe Ruth. A picture of Pennock and Ruth hunting locally is proudly displayed on the wall of Burton's Barber Shop. There is also a lot of memorabilia commemorating the Philadelphia Phillies' world championship teams. Curt Schilling, a Major League pitcher who lived in the Kennett Square area during his time with the Philadelphia Phillies, sent Burton a jersey when he won the World Series with the Boston Red Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks. One jersey is prominently displayed in the shop. Schilling wrote, “To all you trash talkers at Burton’s…God Bless and All the Best.”
Dick Vermeil, the longtime NFL coach who guided the Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams, and Kansas City Chiefs during his career, is a regular customer of Burton's.
“I’ve cut Dick’s hair for a long time,” Burton said, explaining that Vermeil is his favorite NFL football coach.
Burton knows a lot about sports, but more importantly he has an encyclopedic knowledge of his customers. He knows how they like their hair cut. He asks about their health. In short, he cares about his customers, which is why, for many families in the area, he has cut the hair of four generations of men. There are some instances where he knows of families that have been coming to Burton’s Barber Shop for seven generations.
What has been the key of the success for Burton's Barber Shop through the years?
“Good haircuts,” Burton replies.
“I won’t say my good personality,” he added with a laugh. “So it has to be good haircuts.”
Through the years, there have been many people who have worked alongside the Burtons to help make the business a success. There have really been too many to name, but Burton does mention Jimmy Pantano, who started cutting hair in the 1940s and was still working at the age of 92 many decades later. Don Gustin worked at the shop for nearly four decades. Karen Petersen has been working alongside Burton for the last 16 years, and has been indispensable.
A personal highlight for Burton was the 27 years that he spent cutting hair alongside his father.
Then, of course, there are the customers, so many hundreds of people that he has become friends with through the years.
“I never wanted to be anything but a barber,” Burton said. “I have enjoyed being here and being around the people. If you’re in a business where you deal with people, you have to really like people. I like people. You have to really like what you’re doing, and I do. I never thought of doing anything other than this.”