Barber Phil Nelson is retiring on the corner where he’s worked since 1968 because he has too much to do. He keeps a handwritten to-do list with tasks that include: Bicycle 60 miles to the cabin. Finish work on the roof seams. Build another go-kart from scratch. Travel. Work on my motorcycles.
On the flip side of the sheet, Nelson listed his gifts: Ambition. Work ethic. Compassion.
“Those gifts mold my life,” he said. “Everybody has some gifts. Even if they have the gift of life.”
Nelson retires March 31, and on a recent Saturday he shook hands with customers as they asked for extra short haircuts, took clippings of spider plants and said goodbye.
“Phil’s been cutting my hair and telling me stories for 27 years,” said Dave Ferris. “We’re going to miss him in the neighborhood.”
Nelson said there are two topics you’re not supposed to discuss in business: religion and politics.
“I’ve discussed them both in a non-threatening way,” he said.
“Yeah, you’ve never ticked me off on either one,” Ferris said.
“I’ve learned a lot from talking to thousands of people,” Nelson said. “I’ve learned to be more tolerant of other people’s views.”
Nelson is “12-and-a-half years from 90,” and after barbering since age 27, he’s collected plenty of stories to tell his customers. There’s the time the FBI came to question him about a customer accused of kidnapping. He reviewed a composite sketch of the bearded man, and recalled that he seemed like an ordinary guy.
Nelson talks about his dad, whose 1928 dentist chair sits in the window. His father practiced for 50 years and six months; Nelson will beat him with a career of 50 years and seven months.
Nelson also shares his own story. He said that unlike his siblings, he struggled in school, and his parents always wondered how he’d make it in life. But he never had a problem working for himself. He worked a paper route, shoveled snow, mowed lawns, and spray-painted address numbers on curb steps. After serving in the Army, he decided to follow a good friend’s career path and attend barber school.
“I want to go to Special Ed classes and tell them my story,” Nelson said. “I’ll see if I can encourage people who are struggling.”
Nelson said he’s talking to Uptown Plumbing about taking over the storefront. Mytrinh Huynh, who has worked with Nelson since 2000 and is known to many as “Chin,” will relocate to Bruce’s Penn Lake Barbers at 8917 Penn Ave. S. in Bloomington.
Barbers are among the longest-serving professionals in the workforce, Nelson noted.
“Barbering is such an enjoyable job, I don’t even know I’m working,” he said. “…I could still go on. I enjoy it, but I’ve got a list of things I want to do.”