For 50 years, Greg Brown has made a living cutting hair, trimming beards and eyebrows, and generally making people look their best.
Through word-of-mouth referrals, Brown grew and sustained a dedicated clientele of men and women far beyond his Custom Cut hair salon at 47 Ocean Ave. in Portland. A gifted storyteller and good listener, he became a friend and confidante to whole families, “taking care of” parents, children, cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents throughout the Back Cove and Woodford’s Corner neighborhoods.
On Friday, the 69-year-old barber and hair stylist will buzz and snip his way through his last appointments and close the shop he has operated for 36 years.
It won’t be easy.
“It was so hard to reach this decision,” Brown said Thursday while cutting a client’s hair. “I had nights I couldn’t sleep. I thought, ‘How am I gonna tell these people?’ It’s hard to say goodbye, but it was time. I feel good, but my body’s wearing down with all the repetitious work.”
Bad knees and hands numbed by carpal tunnel syndrome have made it difficult to ply the profession that Brown came to after a brief false start as an undertaker, a job he studied for a year after graduating from Kennebunk High School.
“It really wasn’t my thing,” Brown said flatly. “I’m such a softy, I had a difficult time when (the deceased) was a young person. It was just too hard, especially in a small town where you know everybody.”
Wondering what to try next, Brown’s barber suggested that he become a barber. He attended Hanson’s Barber School in Lewiston and took to it right away. A few years later, he studied cosmetology so he could cut women’s hair, too. It was a skill and a service that jibed with a knack for taking care of others.
“I’ve always been a caregiver,” Brown said, “ever since my dad died when I was 13 years old and my mom became a single mother to me and my younger brother.”
A MAN WITH A GIFT OF GAB
But what Brown enjoyed most was meeting people and sharing their lives. Even now, conversations with clients are sprinkled with questions about spouses who haven’t been feeling well, kids who have moved away and new job opportunities on the horizon. Through the years, talk sometimes turned personal, leading some female clients to share intimate details about their sex lives, breakups and divorces.
Brown learned to keep that information to himself.
“I know a lot about my clients and they know a lot about me,” he said.
Shortly after Brown opened his shop on Ocean Avenue in the early 1980s, he had a list of 250 regular clients. Many stuck with him through the decades, and new ones joined him along the way. Some former regulars made appointments in recent weeks to make sure they got one final haircut before he retired. One woman drove up from Sanford. A man came from Old Orchard Beach.
Calvin Sprague stopped by for his last haircut last week. He grew up in the neighborhood and Brown gave him his first haircut.
“A neighbor recommended Greg and he’s been cutting my sons’ hair their whole lives,” said Lisa Sprague, mother of Calvin, 23, and Cameron, 28. “He’s an excellent barber and a nice, caring guy. He was gentle with kids and really got to know families. And he was accommodating. He was always willing to squeeze us in. He’s going to be irreplaceable.”
Joey Harrigan is one of Brown’s newer customers. The Portland High School senior has been getting his hair cut by Brown for a year. Harrigan’s father is one of Brown’s clients and recommended him.
Harrigan was in Wednesday, getting his hair trimmed close in the back and on the sides, and cut a little longer on top.
“I do drag, so a good haircut for me is one where I look like a guy and I can hide it as a girl,” said Harrigan, 17, who is an aspiring drag performance artist. “Beyond that, he’s really relatable to me. I have a gay barber. It’s something that makes me feel welcome here.”
The clients who will miss Brown the most are those who have been stopping by his shop every four to six weeks for the past 36 years. And there are plenty of them.
“He took good care of my whole family,” said Jim Selberg, 75, a retired contractor who lives in Portland. “My mother, her sister, my father and my sons. He gave a good haircut and he was personable.”
Selberg, his flat-top freshly buzzed super short, hugged Brown as he left. The two made plans to stay in touch.
“He’s not just a barber. He’s a friend,” Selberg said. “I’m going to miss him.”
‘A GOOD BARBER IS HARD TO FIND’
Sam D’Amico, a Portland resident who headed human resources for the University of Maine System before he retired, summed up Brown’s skills simply.
“He gives a good haircut, he’s got a pleasant disposition and our kids played soccer together,” said D’Amico, 81. “A good barber is hard to find. You find one, you stick with him.”
Even when D’Amico had a curly Afro, Brown gave him a good haircut. Now, Brown cuts D’Amico’s mostly gray hair close and trims his bushy eyebrows so his wife will be pleased.
“So, where am I going to go?” D’Amico asked Brown, wondering who will cut his hair from now on.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Brown responded.
Michael Messerschmidt, a Portland lawyer who lives in Cape Elizabeth, infused his last visit to Brown’s shop with humor. After 36 years with the same barber, he doesn’t know who will cut his hair now, either.
“I’m thinking of taking applications: 64-year-old guy, who still has some hair, needs a barber,” Messerschmidt said, smiling ruefully.
Brown won’t give up cutting hair entirely. A few of his oldest clients are homebound seniors in their 80s and 90s.
“They were devastated when I told them I was retiring,” Brown said. “So I’ll keep going to their house to cut their hair.”
Brown said he’s looking forward to working on the late 1700s Cape-style home in Buxton that he shares with his partner, David Richard, a lighting and design consultant. Avid travelers, they’re planning a trip to Venice and Florence in the coming year.
Brown also plans to spend more time each summer at the cottage on Long Island that his great-grandparents built, as well as with his two sons from a previous marriage and his two grandchildren.
“I run on nervous energy, so I won’t be bored,” Brown said. “I’ve had a wonderful run and a wonderful clientele. But I’m ready, and I want to retire when I can still go places and do things.”
Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: