Archive for 12th May 2009

HANGOUT BUSINESSES : A chair, an ear and a cup of coffee

 

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO?… HANGOUT BUSINESSES : A chair, an ear and a cup of coffee

Posted on Monday, May 11, 2009

Daily Record photograph by David Frank Dempsey Phil Schoeppe, left, and Tom Jeudevine came to shoot the breeze or, as one gentleman put it, to take part in ‘the negotiations’ while Gary Townzen cut Jim Deichman’s hair at Townzen’s Barbershop in Rogers on Thursday.

ROGERS – On a typical morning, there are fresh donuts, hot coffee and no empty chairs at Townzen’s Barber Shop. Not all of the guests are there for a haircut. One customer called them the “congregation.”

But Gary Townzen is no pastor, taking his pulpit behind the barber chair. He’s more of a ringleader, there mainly to keep the action going, stepping in only when asked or to fill a lull in the conversation.

Walking into the shop, it is often hard to tell who is waiting for the razor and who is there for the conversation.

“(Arriving at) Townzen’s Barber Shop, you might have seven people sitting, but you’re the next one in line,” said Main Street Rogers president Kerry Jensen.

Conversation varies widely, from sports to politics, from weather to the state of nearby parks. Townzen’s favorite subject is history, especially the history of Rogers. Asked why his shop is the last of the great hangout spots, where business comes second to socializing, his head spins.

He reaches into his memory and pulls names where people went just to see who else was there. Freddy’s Pharmacy came first, then its predecessor, the Rogers Pharmacy. Schrader’s Truck Stop and 71 Truck Stop in the ’70s. It seems every place Townzen remembers had these qualities.

He tries to say things haven’t changed, throwing out the names of restaurants and coffee shops, but reluctantly agrees the differences, most notably that social activity is limited to smaller groups and doesn’t encompass the entire establishment.

Townzen is a holdover of an attitude that has been largely abandoned. It’s not a question of customer service, which Townzen cheerfully said is present in all the downtown Rogers shops. But by Townzen’s own admission, he is an exception to most businessmen. Rather than use his job as an excuse to socialize, he uses his socialization as a chance to do some work.

“Cutting hair is a byproduct of what I do,” he said.

While Townzen’s Barbershop is a place to talk about anything but haircuts, other shops seem to use their product as a starting point for discussion.

On the other side of the block from Townzen’s, Frank Romeo holds court with a cloud of smoke around his head. Romeo’s shop, a newcomer to downtown, doesn’t see the constant flow of customers and sightseers that Townzen has developed in 40 years, but Romeo has his regulars. They gather around a common joy – the love of smoking a pipe.

Romeo said the trend in businesses has strayed from social to expedient.

“Somewhere along the line, it became in-and-out,” Romeo said.

He thinks it may have come with the big-box retailer, as mom-and-pop shops tried to compete with their larger counterparts. Small-business owners still offer great customer service, he said, but their relationship with the customer is often purely professional.

Unlike even Townzen, however, Romeo has sought to extend his social gathering beyond business hours. On the second Thursday of each month, he hosts The Ozark Pipe Smokers at his shop. Technically, the store is open, but nobody is thinking about business.

Over lunch Wednesday, a couple of the club members lit up at his shop. The conversation, as it always does, started with pipes and tobacco but quickly morphed to economics, corrective eye surgery and a little religion. And along the way, they talked about social businesses and how creating one can help defend an entrepreneur from less-expensive retail options.

“The mom-and-pops can still survive, but they can never compete on price,” said Jeff Neisler, letting his pipe die out as he spoke. “The Internet and Wal-Mart have changed the way we do everything.”

Because of recent changes in the economy, Neisler said, customer service has developed a nostalgic appeal. And Jensen, whose work includes the economic promotion of Rogers’ historic district, hopes to expand that idea into the downtown’s identity.

“The downtown is really focusing on customer service,” Jensen said. “That’s what they have to offer.”

Building personal relationships can only bolster that identity, he added.

“You’re building these friendships at these little group meetings,” Jensen said. “It’s very personal, and I think people right now are going back to the personal.”

Jensen never fails to tout customer service in downtown Rogers, but he said Townzen and Romeo – he also mentioned the new G.I. Guns & Ammo – can add entertainment value to the overall experience.

“It’s really nothing more than being friendly,” Jensen said.

Ron Garratt, the co-owner of G.I. Guns & Ammo, said his goal was to create a place to hang out, but he hasn’t quite gotten there, mostly because he hasn’t brought in any seats. But he already has people standing around, telling their gun stories, cop stories, hunting stories, fishing stories – all in the name of a good story.

“Even if you don’t know one, you can make one of those up,” Garratt said.

The social time has brought him closer to his customers, creating a camaraderie, but it’s been difficult to get some of them to slow down, he said.

“They just don’t seem to have the time they used to,” Garratt said.

Romeo would like to see the hangout qualities of downtown grow until it becomes a roaming social circle.

“It used to be bar hopping,” Romeo said as he and Andrew Hyatt lit their pipes.

“Shop hop,” Hyatt suggested.

While Jensen and Romeo said certain business types lend themselves to be social hangouts, Townzen felt there could be universal appeal, as long as the business owner is willing to foster such an atmosphere.

“You have to encourage it,” Townzen said. “I don’t know that it’s limited to any type of business.”

Townzen drew from his past, especially from his childhood, to develop the style that makes him an attraction in downtown Rogers.

“My mother’s never met a stranger in her life,” he said.

With that little bit of effort and a willingness to include anyone who walks into his shop in the general discussion, Townzen has turned his business into something like those he remembers from his younger days.

“The same people telling the same lies,” he said. “Excuse me, the same stories.”