Times were tough for barbers when Bob Mezyk graduated from the now closed Lamar Barber School in Detroit in 1968. “Business was down in the late 1960’s and in the 70’s,” said Mezyk, who runs his barbering business at Helsel’s Barber Shop, 4005 West River Drive in downtown Comstock Park. “Long hair was the style.” That was primarily due to the influence of the hippie culture’s love affair with long hair, he said. Over his more than four decade career, Mezyk has cut every style from disco, to Mohawk, to mullet, to buzz cut, and more.
After graduating from barber school, Mezyk worked at a barber shop in Grand Rapids, and in 1980 moved to Helsel’s Barber Shop, owned by long time Comstock Park resident Herald Helsel. Helsel opened the shop at its current location in 1960. Mezyk bought the business from Helsel in 1982, retaining the name, and rented chairs to other barbers, most currently to Chris Ambrose and Jerry Meyer, who both moved into the shop in 2009. The two had worked at the Alpine Meijer Barber Shop for twenty years until it closed. Mezyk works mornings, and Ambrose and Meyer work afternoons.
Mezyk , a Grand Rapids native who now lives on the northeast side, worked several jobs after graduating from Union High School and finally decided on barbering. “I wanted to be self-employed, liked the idea of working for myself,” said Mezyk. “Barbers are kind of independent.”
People skills are a big part of barbering, Mezyk said, adding his father ran a grocery store in northwest Grand Rapids, and that’s where he learned “how to be friendly with customers.” Mezyk said a teacher in barber school told him he’d be good at barbering because he was “a good talker…friendly…funny, and that’s half of the job.”
Barbering is one of the world’s oldest professions, said Mezyk, dating back more than 5000 years. Then called barber surgeons, barbers not only cut hair and shaved facial hair, they were medical practitioners performing surgery, dentistry, bloodletting, setting broken bones, and the like. Red and white barber pole colors represented white cloth bandages and blood from the surgeries. In America, barber poles, like the one outside Helsel’s, are generally red, white, and blue, it’s thought to represent the colors of the American flag. Eventually medical surgeons and doctors took over the medical aspects of barbering, and barbers became restricted in what they could do.
Barber shops have always been gathering places for news, gossip and socializing. Mezyk said he’s enjoyed the “characters” who have passed through his shop over the decades. Those have included race car drivers who raced on the old Comstock Park Speedrome, one of whom won the Indianapolis 500 twice, and a professional rodeo barrel racer and bull rider. Local film students, in 2010, used the shop as a setting for their short, comic film “A Close Shave,” about a barber who accidentally kills one of his patrons and has to hide the crime from the friendly, local sheriff.
Besides socializing with his customers, Mezyk said he likes cutting hair for the variety. “Some (people) have curly, some have straight, features are different,” he said. “Haircuts are always changing, so you’re always learning. “It’s satisfying,” he added. “You start the hair cut, and in fifteen minutes you can see how much better they look.”
When he’s not busy cutting hair, Mezyk, with his son, buys, fixes, and sells houses. He also buys cars, makes “cosmetic” repairs, and then sells them.