'A cut above'

Published: Wednesday, February 4, 2004

A cut above
President Barbershop's Moe Sanchez is an old-fashioned class act

by Dana Green

Photos by Norbert von der Groeben

A pedestrian walks past the front window of The President Barber Shop, which has been in business on University Avenue since the late 1920s.

Do you want water or Miracle Gro with that?" the barber asks.

"Not today," says the businessman with a smile.

It's been Moses "Moe" Sanchez' closing line after every haircut for more than 40 years. He's seen a lot of change in Palo Alto, but he thinks some traditions are worth keeping.

At the President Barbershop on University Avenue, which Sanchez has co-owned since 1960, customers are cheerfully greeted by first name, Sanchez and the other barbers all wear freshly ironed dress shirts and ties, and an old-fashioned barber pole still spins merrily outside the shop's front window.

Barber Tom Holguin brushes snippets of hair from four-year customer Max Pruden of Santa Clara.

In an era of franchises and mega-chains, Sanchez's shop harkens back to a time of family-run businesses and courteous service. It was his brother-in-law, Roy Ruiz, who sold his half of the business to Sanchez in 1960. Since that time, the shop has remained in the family, with cousins, nephews and sons coming on board to help out. Roy still cuts hair at the shop two days a week.

"This barbershop has always been family," Sanchez said.

At the end of a busy day, Dan Rodriguez sweeps the floor of the shop, where the task is referred to as "practice for the Olympic curling team."

Sanchez's son worked at the shop for seven years, before opening his own barbershop near Sacramento. "He's doing very well," Sanchez said. "He's a better barber than I am, but I'm not going to tell him that!" he laughs.

Sanchez remembers when most of the shops lining University Avenue were also family-owned. "All the merchants knew each other...my kids could go into shops and say, 'Just charge it to Dad,'" Sanchez recalled.

Sanchez also remembers when the President Hotel, which houses the barbershop, was still the premiere hotel in Palo Alto, with a grand Spanish-style spiral staircase that climbed all the way to the top floor. The hotel was closed in the 1960s, and has been remodeled into apartments.

Moe Sanchez cuts John Eckland’s hair recently just as he has since 1961, when a hair cut cost $1.50.

Everything has changed since the days when Palo Alto was a quiet, quaint university town. But Sanchez, who commutes from his home in San Jose three days a week, is pragmatic. "I still like Palo Alto," he said. "We just have to change along with it."

Although not all the changes are welcome, business at the barbershop has improved over the years. The shop used to rely on college kids as its main customers, but when long hair became fashionable, the students stopped coming. "Business was so bad in the '60s and '70s we used to go do house-calls," Sanchez said.

Above a shelf of hair products, the barbers display their licenses and work schedules — misspellings and all.

Sanchez and Ruiz would also go to Stanford Hospital and make a few dollars cutting patients' hair.

Now businessmen are his regulars, and the students are starting to trickle back in. As Sanchez moves on to a new customer, barber Richard Reyes puts the finishing touches on a spiky crewcut for a student in baggy shorts and flip-flops.
Growing up in San Jose, Sanchez did not plan on being a barber. After serving in the Air Force in the 1950s, he trained to work as an aircraft mechanic. But when the technology changed, so did Sanchez's career. "All the companies switched to jets," he recalled. "I said, well, I'll go to barber school. I've always liked to work with my hands. Talking to people, telling lousy jokes, it's fun." Sanchez commuted by train to San Francisco to go to barber school.

Jim Murray of Santa Clara gets a cut by Sanchez while barber Dan Rodriguez (right) waits for his next customer.

Sanchez believes that he's lasted four decades in the business because he brings a sense of playfulness to the job. "You have to have a sense of humor in this line of work, rather than just 'yes, sir' and 'no, sir,'" Sanchez remarked.

It was Sanchez's idea to install the backward clock on the barbershop wall. Not only can customers tell the time while they're getting their hair cut, but Sanchez has some fun with his youngest customers.

"I have a lot of fun with that, with the little kids," Sanchez laughed. I ask them, what time it is, and they look at the clock and get confused."

Six-year-old Ben Leonard is skeptical about his haircut, but barber Roy Ruiz isn’t put out: he’s cut plenty of youngsters’ hair in his career at the President.

When Sanchez hand-wrote his work schedule and posted it on the wall, he realized he'd left one letter out. But the sign remains on the wall to this day.

"You'd be surprised how many people notice," Sanchez said. "It starts a conversation."

After 43 years of good haircuts and bad jokes, Sanchez has decided to retire at the end of the month. Reyes will take over his half of the business; Roy's son Carlos owns the other half. The commute from San Jose has gotten more difficult, and he hopes to devote more time to his woodworking hobby.

But even in retirement, Sanchez is hoping to continue serving the public. "It's the type of business that I can donate my time at convalescent homes, hospitals ... I can do things like that."

Like the barber pole, Sanchez may be old-fashioned, but he's still going strong.





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