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Danny Gamez: Preserving a historic barbershop in downtown Tucson

I sit on a reupholstered bench at the entrance to Danny’s Barbershop. Photographs fight for space on the crowded walls, rendering the shop a living museum of downtown Tucson.

There are no TVs, no radio. Just the continuous low-level buzz of conversations and hair clippers. It smells like a mixture of creosote and your dad’s garage.

Sitting in Danny’s chair is a teenage boy. He starts at Tucson High next week. Trapped between adolescence and adulthood, he sits at once stiff and gangly. I’ll later learn Danny has been cutting the boy’s hair since he was able to sit in this chair. It shows. Danny has an uncle-like conversational air as his head shifts between making eye contact with the boy in the mirror and the job at hand. Danny reclines the chair and the boy relaxes into it, shedding the inevitable baggage of being a highschool freshman. Danny has this effect on people. When you are in his chair and under his gaze, you feel present.

In 1939, Danny’s Downtown Barbershop wasn’t called Danny’s Downtown Barbershop, but its doors were open. It was Palace Barbershop until 1949, when Johnny Gibson purchased it upon his return from WWII. Johnny Gibson went on to become a pillar of Tucson’s downtown community, cutting the community’s hair at his barbershop for 52 years, while also managing a gym across the street.

In the late 90s, a young Danny Gamez got his hair cut by Johnny regularly. Danny didn’t know at the time he would enroll in barber college himself a few years later. He didn’t know he would fall in love with the craft, and he probably never imagined he’d be cutting hair in the exact same shop—let alone owning it.

After managing the shop for a handful of owners, Danny was able to buy it himself in 2012. It’s important to Danny that he maintains the tradition of this place as a classic barbershop. If that is the experience you want, it is undoubtedly here. But while upholding its history, Danny Gamez is also building something completely new.

When a man wanders in from the street, hair matted, clothes dirty, his eyes fixed to the floor, hesitant to pass the threshold of the space, Danny smiles and waves him over. Sitting the man down in his chair, Danny looks him in the eyes, and asks him two questions.

“How are you?”

“How do you want it?”

Danny sees him. The power of this act cannot be understated. Taking the time, not to try and solve anything, but simply to see him as another human deserving of time and compassion. That is what Danny is bringing to our community. These small acts of mutual aid and empathy have had massive results. Danny tells me about addicts who have visited the shop after entering recovery, thanking him for the respite his chair provided. About people he has given haircuts to on the days they had job interviews. How that haircut helped land a job that got them back on their feet.

The conviction with which Danny speaks about the transformative power of a haircut is one reserved for those who are doing what they were put on this earth to do. He says it gives people a second chance – a lighthouse, offering hope that there’s a way out of the storm and onto dry land.

Danny’s belief is what drives him to give free haircuts to those in need, but that isn’t the only way he gives back. On weekends he brings sandwiches and water to the shop for people on the street who are hungry or thirsty. He says sometimes people don’t even need a haircut, they just need someone to listen.

His other commitment is to preserving history. The chairs in his shop are still the original chairs from 1949. He has gone to great lengths to maintain them, re-upholstering them and ensuring the increasingly obscure parts are all in working order.

I sit and watch and admire the chairs while Danny brushes the remaining flecks of hair off the young boy’s shoulders. The boy heads for the door, seemingly lighter than when he entered. It’s my turn now.

I sink into the cool black leather in the same chair Johnny Gibson used to cut the hair of men he served with in WWII, the same chair Danny Gamez got his haircut in as a child. Danny spins me around, meeting my eyes in the mirror. I don’t feel as if my hair is being assessed. He is looking beyond what I am now, glimpsing into all the different things I could be. The potential this haircut has for a new chapter.

“How do you want it?”

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