Basement barbershop at Gunter Hotel keeps on going
The Gunter Hotel's basement was once a men's refuge. In the 1950s, a man could feast at Rathskeller's buffet, get steamed in the Turkish bath and then talk shop while getting a shave, haircut and shoeshine at the hotel's barbershop. Before venturing home, he could stop on the main level to buy jewelry for his wife.
Most of the businesses closed in the 1960s, and the hotel's housekeeping services now surround the barbershop — which turned 100 this year, the sole survivor of the “men's center.”
Lee Bosman, the shop's owner, was lucky enough to see some of what he calls the “golden days.” At 27, after retiring from the Navy and a short stint with aviation company Swearingen, he graduated from barber college and started at the shop in 1975. He never left.
Four barbers from the 1930s were still working there — frail and a little slower, they were still experts and willing to teach. Observing them at work, Bosman said he realized that he didn't know as much about barbering as he thought he did.
“They were sculptors in their own right,” Bosman said. “Just to see those old-timers and how they were, that's how I learned to be a true barber.”
Compared with 70 years ago, the barbershop at 205 E. Houston St. might seem short-staffed. Bosman, 61, and Dave Luce are the only barbers, and Drew Miller is the sole porter, a job combining shoeshining and custodial duties.
In 1937, it was a 24-hour barbershop with two cashiers, six manicurists, five porters and 18 barbers. Three shifts — day, night and overnight — kept it running.
When a customer walked in, every barber rose from his stool. A strict code of silence forbade them from soliciting his business, but barbers were sneaky. One might casually snap a cabinet shut or squeak his shoe, causing the customer to look over. Then, the smiling barber would motion the customer toward his chair.
“And that's how they got you,” Bosman said. “They had tricks to get the customer's attention.”
These days, Bosman and Luce, 48, greet customers with a big hello and a handshake. They keep coming back.
Like Nick White, 45, who moved to San Antonio almost two years ago. In need of a haircut, he searched online and found out about the basement refuge on the Gunter Hotel's Web site.
“I like things that have historic meaning,” White said. “The barbershop has been around for 100 years — I think that's something special.”
But he was nervous. No barber had ever mastered his specific style the first time around.
“It takes a bit of time to explain what I want,” White said. “But on Dave's first attempt — he got it right.”
White explained that he is a bank executive and needs to look the part.
“This is a coat-and-tie environment. You can't look like Scooby Doo, all shaggy and whatnot,” White said. “You have to look professional.”
Even the shop's furniture is historic. A hat rack in the corner was there in 1909, and some of the mirrors are the same age. The barber chairs are 62 years old — and must be sent out of town if they need repair — and the sinks are about 90.
White said he and Luce always talk — updating each other about their kids and home repair projects.
But the shop can also be quiet, even when Bosman and Luce both have clients.
“You let them talk to you first,” Bosman said. “If they grab a paper and read it, you leave them alone. Sometimes they have to get out of the office, get a haircut and relax.”
When silent customers arrive, Bosman, Luce and Miller begin a barbershop symphony.
The soft clip-clip of Bosman's scissors and the swoosh of Miller's polish brushes against leather fill the shop. Bosman's clippers only hum when he evens the edges — most of the cut is done with scissors and a comb. An array of colognes and aftershaves clink when Luce organizes them.
Miller, 26, takes exactly 10 minutes per shoe. His father, who also shined shoes, taught him the trade as a child.
“I was 8 years old and I came home and said, ‘I'm hungry.' My dad said, ‘My boots are dirty. This will work out for the both of us,'” he said.
The shop draws its clientele from the local business and legal communities, plus tourists and even the occasional celebrity.
Songwriter Paul Williams visited daily while the singing duo the Carpenters were performing in town. Other customers from the nearby Majestic Theatre have included James Taylor and Carol Channing (“Hello Dolly”). Henry Guerra, the WOAI radio personality, frequented the shop, and Archbishop José Gomez is now a biweekly customer.
A short stack of Playboy magazines had been in a rack but were hastily moved to a table, face down, when the archbishop first walked in. They haven't been put back on display.
The shop thrived in the 1910s, when barbers not only used leeches on customers, but filled dental cavities after a trim. It endured the 1930s, when a barber might perform 14 shaves before a single haircut on a typical day. It survived two months under water when the San Antonio River flooded downtown in 1921.
“And that was just the first hundred years,” Bosman said. “Just wait for the second.”