At 93, Conrad’s own hair has been white for a long time. Now that it has thinned a bit he has given up the brush cut he favoured in his working days but he still likes it short and tidy.
It was in 1947, two years after the Second World War ended, that Conrad, who grew up on Pictou’s Hill Street, went off to Moncton and took a four-month barbering course.
“I was working at the Pictou shipyards during the war but when the war ended business slowed down. As fellows started coming back from overseas younger fellows were being laid off and I had to find something else to do,” said Conrad.
Small in stature and mild in manner, Conrad is not sure what pushed him in the barbering direction.
“I thought I should get some training in something and I probably didn’t have enough money to go to school for a long time so a four-month course looked good.”
His first cut, as a licensed barber, was on a house call.
“It was Neil Haley’s son, about 18 months old. They sat him backwards on the tray of his highchair and I cut his hair. It couldn’t have been too bad because I cut Neil’s and his sons’ hair for a lot of years after that.”
Conrad opened his first shop on Church Street – a haircut was 35 cents – and had to wait a year for a spot to open up on Water Street.
“Water Street was busy during the war and afterwards. If you wanted to be busy it was the place to be.”
He estimates there were half a dozen barbershops in Pictou in his early years, most of them with a single barber, although there was one larger operation on Denoon Street. After several years in business he could afford a car but he still walked to work. A working day was 9 to 5 and he closed on Wednesday afternoons so he could go to New Glasgow, through Sylvester since there was no causeway, to buy supplies for his shop. On a Saturday he might work as late as 11 p.m.
“The farmers came to town on Saturday night. They went to the grocery store and put in their order and then they went to the show. After the show they went back to pick up the groceries and do whatever business they needed to do and then they came for a haircut. They would be lined up but nobody minded.”
The other time of day when a lineup might be expected was when workers at the shipyards came off shift.
“I knew them all from growing up in town and playing sports or from when I worked at the shipyards so they brought me a lot of business.”
Conrad’s niece, Jane Delaney, was in and out of the shop frequently, sometimes for a few cents to buy candy and sometimes to chat with her uncle and sometimes just to listen to the stories.
“The shipyard workers would come in tired and some of them would be covered in dirt and grease. Gerald would take his time, give them a nice cut and they’d go out with a spring in their steps.”
Conrad had a big poster on his wall, depicting a variety of styles and customers could choose how they wanted the top, sides and back.
“It was great because they didn’t have to try to explain, they could just point to the style they liked and I could give them what they wanted.”
Some of his most particular customers were those with the least hair.
“I remember guys with very little hair who would come in every two weeks for a trim.”
Then in the ’60s, as rock and roll came on the scene, the barbering business took a big hit.
“I had a lot of older guys so it did not change them but the younger fellows started to let their hair grow a little longer so they didn’t come as often. Not so many fathers were bringing their kids in with them, either.”
Conrad remembers it was always mothers who brought in young, rambunctious children who did not really want their hair cut.
“The mothers would sit in the chair with the child on their laps and I’d go around them and snip when I could. When the kids got older and settled down their fathers would bring them but it was the mothers who had the hard job.”
If 50-plus years of barbering yielded some juicy stories, former customers can be assured Conrad is not the guy to tell them. He may have had the odd drunk to contend with but that is as far as he will go.
“People were good. I never had anybody hard to get along with. If I had to stay late to give somebody a cut, I stayed late. Saturdays were long in the early years but I always knew my father had a meal waiting for me.”
Retirement for Conrad was achieved in stages. He thought he was retiring when his nephew, Donnie Roach, began barbering but he worked from home for a couple more years. After that he continued to cut some of his regular customers’ hair in Lyons Brook.
Delaney moved in with her grandparents and Conrad, who never married, when she was 12 years old and niece and uncle have been together ever since. When she got married she and her husband moved in with Conrad. Later, when the Delaneys moved to Lyons Brook, Conrad went with them.
“My husband passed away a few years ago and with Gerald getting older, the Lyons Brook property was just too big for us to look after so we had to find a new place that suited us both.”
They are back in the Hill Street neighbourhood where both grew up, enjoying a view of the harbour and the wildlife in the nearby woods.
“I don’t know what I’d do without Jane,” said Conrad.
He is, according to Delaney, the best uncle anyone ever had.
Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think should she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at email@example.com