Cutting Hair, Cutting Up

Johnny’s in Coweta and other small-town barbershops across Oklahoma trim hefty egos with razor-sharp humor.

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Johnny Snelson, giving a customer a trim, grew up in the barbershop that his uncle Ran and that he now owns. Snelson’s father was born in the building when it was a doctor’s office.
Photos by Charlie Rosenthal

The owner’s greeting when you enter is consistent – “Hey! How ya doin’?” The phone salutation when you call is simple – “Barbershop.” And the sharpness of the joking, ribbing and pranking is undying, whether it’s at Johnny Snelson’s place in Coweta or hundreds of small-town barbershops across Oklahoma.

Johnny’s Barber Shop is an old-fashioned one-seater on the main drag downtown. For Snelson, the edifice is essential to his history. His uncle, Gary Snelson, began the barbershop in 1974 and retired in 2002. Johnny Snelson got his barber’s license and took over the business in 1998.

“My great-grandfather built this building in 1950 as an office for Dr. Jerry Nelms before my uncle bought it. My daddy was born in this building,” says Snelson, 38. “I would hang out here as a kid as much as my dad would let me. It is a barbershop after all.”

You can get a shave and a haircut, not for two bits (that 1899 song was long ago), but for prices competitive with chains like Supercuts.

The service is personal … the verbal sniping fierce.

“Yeah, we get after each other pretty regular,” says Jeff Hurst, who has come in for a flattop every 10 days for decades. “I’ve been trying for years to get him to have a customer loyalty card.”

Hurst, of nearby Haskell, has “known Johnny since he was a boy. He was an ornery kid … still is,” he says with a laugh. “Seriously, he does a great job. I’d go somewhere else if he didn’t. And if I cheated on him, he’d know about it.”

Snelson says his shop “is a gathering place – a lot of people shooting the bull. Everyone knows each other. It’s a lot of repeat business. It’s a camaraderie thing. You get to hang out with your friends.”

Photo by Charlie Rosenthal

And as much as he likes throwing out barbs, Snelson has a great fondness for his youngest customers.

“I got kids whose fathers I gave their first haircuts to,” Snelson says. “And if they’re squirmy, I just talk to ’em. It’s neat to see them grow up, especially when they used to fight you in the chair.”

His advice for parents is straightforward: “Just let me handle them. The mamas who coddle them are the worst. The kids’ll settle down if you just let ’em.”

Meanwhile, jokes continue, even with the youngsters, albeit toned down a bit.

“It’s always fun to tell a little boy how his daddy used to cry whenever he had his hair cut,” Snelson says.

Then the adult chirping returns.

“You know, there ain’t any secrets about Johnny that you could print in your magazine,” Hurst says. “What happens here in the barbershop stays in the barbershop, just like in Vegas.”

Poles of Contention

The innocuous barber pole has divided people in hairstyling. The pole, with medieval origins, has long been used by licensed barbers. However, many stylists not licensed to use razors feel they should be able to hang a barber pole outside their businesses. Johnny Snelson of Coweta is firmly on the barbers’ side: “It’s a matter of nostalgia, pride and professionalism,” he says.

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