It was 1998, I think, when Gus The Other Barber moved his shop. Having been a mainstay on the south side of Bloor Street in Toronto’s Annex area for decades, Gus found himself priced out by rising rent. So he migrated his three-chair operation to Mirvish Village, about a block and a half west. It was a pretty big deal at the time.
I was living in The Annex then, in a basement apartment below a big old brick pile on Walmer Road. I lived hand-to-mouth doing various kinds of writing, mostly freelancing for a company that made educational CD-ROMs. I was also working on a series of stories based on my childhood in Nobel, Ontario, and I carried drafts with me just about everywhere.
I heard all about the big move when I went in to Gus the Other Barber one day for my usual haircut. I offered to take pictures of the original barbershop before the move. Gus said sure, he’d like that. The place was full of soccer pennants, Leafs memorabilia, family photos, shots of men and boys getting second and third generation cuts from Gus. It was worth documenting.
(Somewhere I have a packet of black & white photos of a classic Toronto barbershop in all its glory. I got doubles—remember doubles?—and gave the second set to Gus and the guys. A few of those pics made it onto the edges of their mirrors at the new location. That’s pretty much pride of place at a barbershop.)
Gus The Other Barber wasn’t my barber. He was a man of stature, much in demand, and tended to have a long wait. He only ever cut my hair once, in all the years I went there. A couple of times I got Byron, the second chair, but my regular barber was Little Gus. Little Gus was diminutive, as his nickname suggested, and soft-spoken, with a Greek accent even thicker than Gus or Byron’s. At Gus the Other Barber, he was the other Gus, holding down the third chair, taking whomever might come in.
Little Gus cut my hair the day I photographed the old shop. Gus, the Other Barber was holding court, expansive and humble at once as he shared plans for the big re-opening down the street. “All the papers will be there!” he said.”Honest Ed is going to be my first customer!” Byron chipped in to note that Stuart McLean, another local celebrity, would be HIS first customer. I asked Little Gus who would be his guy. He said, “I dunno. Maybe you.”
I thought Little Gus must be kidding—there had to be a more important customer looking to occupy his chair on the big day. But when he repeated the offer, I couldn’t refuse.
So a few weeks later, at the grand opening of Gus the Other Barber’s new location, I showed up for my haircut. The place was crowded with dozens of long-time customers, local business owners, well-wishers, politicians, and the press. An MP made a speech, a ribbon was snipped, there was applause. The cameras whirred, and then it was time for the ceremonial first cuts.
Honest Ed Mirvish took his place of honour in Gus’s chair as planned. He didn’t have much hair by that point, but he knew how to work the camera and give a great quote. A photo of Gus cutting Ed’s hair graced the cover of the next day’s Star.
Byron gestured for Stuart McLean, waiting quietly to one side, to step up into his chair. But just then, a guy walked in off the street. A little the worse for the wear, and unaware of what was going on, he walked right in and sat down. Byron, nonplussed, looked over for guidance. Stuart McLean insisted he go ahead and give the man a cut, as though it was exactly what was meant to happen. It was a barber shop, after all.
The cameras had stopped clicking at this point, but there was still a buzz. People were chatting, enjoying free coffee and doughnuts. Little Gus waved me over to his chair. On my way, I reached into my satchel and grabbed some freshly-printed pages. “Mr. McLean,” I said, “If you’re looking for something to read while you wait, I’d be honoured if you’d read this. It’s a story I wrote.”
He looked up at me with what I recall as eagerness. I don’t know why he might have been eager: maybe I had saved him from the spotlight, or from making small talk while he waited. But anyway, he took the sheaf of papers, and I slid into Little Gus’s chair and got my hair cut.
By the time I was done, the fanfare had more or less died down, though the place was still busy. Honest Ed had given some quotes and headed across the street to work; the local MP likewise had done his bit and gone. Byron had finished with his surprise first customer’s hair, and Stuart McLean would finally get his cut.
The story I had given him to read was a personal one from my childhood, called Reading to Peter. It’s a true story, about a younger boy I knew who raised money for Terry Fox when he came through Nobel in the summer of 1980. Peter was later severely disabled in a car accident. I used to read to him after school.
When I approached Stuart McLean, he had that story open, the pages gripped between both hands. “I like it,” he told me, “I really like it.” He jabbed the page with his finger as he said it. “And this is my favourite line.” He proceeded to read that line to me, and to this day I hear it in his voice: “I felt sad that the road is so long and hard, and the oceans are so far apart.”
I cannot imagine a greater gift, from a storyteller of stature, to someone just coming up. To take the time to read the story is one thing. To compliment it is another. To pick, and recite your favourite line is yet another. But Stuart McLean chose the line that encapsulated, and transcended the story. He spoke it out loud in his own voice, with his own inimitable cadence. When that line came back to me, it was, for lack of a better word, blessed.
Having come to help a neighbour mark a milestone, he stood aside for a guy who desperately needed a haircut, and lent his voice to the words of a budding writer. With all his achievements, awards, and accolades, that’s the thing I’ll remember, first and best and forever about Stuart McLean: an extraordinary kindness.
In a barber shop, on Bloor Street, no less. Doesn’t that just seem fitting, somehow?