When the summer finally ended and gave way to fall, James Nelson would anxiously await the new models on the lots of the local car dealers. He loved cars and every fall was the highlight of the year.
When he was a senior in high school, he saved up $200 by working at a vegetable farm near his home in rural Minnesota and decided to buy a cool-looking 1947 Plymouth Coupe. It had five windows and it was the color of wet sand: a nice tan color, not beige.
Nelson was born three days into 1941. He grew up on a small dairy farm in a little town called Princeton. Sometimes Nelson would drive his five younger brothers into town, if his mom allowed it. Nelson would do anything to get behind the wheel of his Plymouth.
College wasn’t in the cards for Nelson because his family couldn’t afford it. Nelson enrolled himself in the Minneapolis vocational college where he became a certified barber at the age of 19 and was able to pay for his education at the University of Minnesota.
On a sunny afternoon in Austin, Nelson sat inside his barbershop located on Guadalupe. His wrinkled fingers twisted the white hair on his chin. His gaze was fixed on the cars speeding by as he tried to recall a moment in his life that happened more than 20 years ago.
“What I thought I was getting into was not what it was,” Nelson said. “I thought it would be more the artistic thing — more of the drawing board — but it was way more scientific, more math and engineering and stuff like that. Not as fun.”
He recalled the time he spent at the University of Minnesota studying architecture. He worked as a barber by day and attended evening classes by night. It was the only way he could have afforded school. Nelson eventually dropped out of college and became a full-time barber.
“I’m glad that I went this direction, and I’ve not felt like I’m in a place that I don’t want to be,” Nelson said. “I enjoy the people part of it and the creativity.”
Before coming to Texas in the early 1980s, Nelson owned barbershops in Minneapolis. He moved to McAllen when his wife had to relocate for work. Finally, in 1989, after spending several years in Dallas, Nelson settled down in Austin. He had his eye on a small shop near the big university — it was called The Wooten Barber Shop. It was perfect because Nelson was looking for a shop in a populated area to build clientele. At the time, Nelson was working at a place called CNS Barber and Beauty, which is where he met his friend and co-worker, Don Stafford, before getting hired at Wooten in 1992.
Nelson made sure to inform his boss that he would like to own the place one day. That had been the plan all along, but the shop wasn’t for sale at the time.
“So, he said, ‘If I ever sell it, you’ll get the first bid,’” Nelson said.
Wooten had no customers on this particular February morning because of the wet roads and chilly breeze. Stafford sat comfortably on a chair, watching the Olympics on the big plasma screen. Three other barbers, Ralph Torres, Grant Gomez and Cisco Johnson, are watching it all, mesmerized by the figure skaters performing the triple lutz and quadruple toe loops.
Stafford is the head barber at Wooten. He is a decorated Marine and has been working there for 20 years. He’s known Nelson for 21 years and describes him as a traveler: someone who takes any chance he gets to explore the world.
“He takes up to six or seven vacations a year,” Stafford said. “He’s a timeshare guy. He really, really likes timeshares.”
“Did he tell you he’s an artist? He paints and draws,” Stafford added, before getting up and heading to the back of the shop.
“It’s a different day, you never know what you’re going to get,” said Cisco Johnson, who has been at the shop for 11 years. He jokingly said his favorite thing about being a barber was the money he made.
“I just love working with these guys, and the atmosphere is great,” Johnson said. He recalled one moment in particular where a customer walked in early in the day and sat down in Johnson’s chair. Johnson asked the man how he was, and the man replied that he didn’t know because he was still drunk.
As they listen to Johnson tell the story, suddenly all of the barbers begin to laugh.
Johnson got up and walked over to a picture inside a small wooden frame, hanging on the wall in front of the second barber chair. It’s a picture of the whole gang, and Johnson is sitting, with a scared look on his face, the other four barbers are surrounding him, tools in hand, ready to cut Johnson’s non-existent hair.
Watching from across the room is Gomez, the youngest barber in the group. He’s been working here for no more than 10 years, and said Nelson is a “very honest, loyal, and passionate guy.” Nelson hired Gomez as he was easing into retirement.
“He was looking for someone to fill in the days when he was off,” Gomez said. “I used to get my hair cut here.”
“We lost a customer when he started working here,” Johnson interrupted. Both Gomez and Johnson chuckled.
“The running joke here is, ‘The haircut gets you in, and the massage gets you coming back,’” Gomez said.
All of the barbers have a great deal of pride for Wooten and their own work.
Gomez mentioned that his favorite thing about Wooten is being able to give advice to the younger guys that walk through the doors.
“I like to impart some parental wisdom or guidance,” Gomez said. “Honestly, I think they listen to us maybe more than they do their parents.”
Ralph Torres, the fifth and shyest barber, moved to the back of the shop. He’s known Nelson for 21 years and speaks of him with the highest regard.
“He’s got a good relationship with all of us,” Torres said. “He’s a great boss.”
The Wooten Barber Shop is the longest running independent business on The Drag. The barbers credit this to a number of factors.
“A lot of these kids don’t come from barber shops,” Gomez said. “They come from Super Cuts or whatever. So they come here and it’s an old school barber shop. They like the feel. They’ve got movies and sports on all day. Girls walking by the window all day. So it’s a pretty fun place to hang out. It reminds them of going to the barber shop with their granddad.”
In the back of the barbershop, behind the mirrors and shelves, hidden away in a little nook is a single antique Belmont vintage barber chair. There’s a sink, a small TV and a shelf for storage. This is where you will find the 73-year-old Nelson, tucked away, awaiting his next customer, scissors and blade at the ready.
The door jingles. A customer walks in. Nelson comes out from his little nook and signals him over. A man in his mid-40s sits down.
“So what are we doing today?” Nelson asked. “The usual?”
“Same as usual,” replied the familiar stranger.