Longtime Mercer Island barber dies

Generations of haircuts, a passion driven by his clients.

In 1962 Robert “Bob” Schmaus opened the Islander Barber Shop on Mercer Island, and for the next 57 years in antique 1949 Koken barber chairs, Schmaus continued to cut community members’ hair. That professional calling would extend through generations.

On Oct. 24 Schmaus died at the age of 88, but the conversations and memories made inside his shop still carry on through the clients who frequented his shop.

“Dad cut generations of customers’ hair from boys to men and their children and grandchildren,” said Darcy Barham, the daughter of Bob Schmaus. “He owned a friendly and a homey real old-fashioned barbershop, pole and all.”

The barber shop was located below the old Ostroms Drug Store and offered $5 haircuts when it first opened. According to Barham, Robert averaged 15-20 haircuts per day with a record breaking day of 27. At one point, Bob feared the Beatles would almost break his business with the “Mop Top” hair trend.

The trick as to why Bob’s shop was so successful Barham believes is because of the way her father decided to run the shop — he changed very little throughout the years and kept to old traditions.

“He knew your name, how you liked your hair and was genuinely glad to see you,” Barham said. Barham described the shop as more than a place to get your haircut, but a spot where people could meet up, swap stories and sip coffee.

“I said, ‘Dad, you should write a book about all the therapy you’ve provided to people,’ and he said, ‘Yeah — people tell their barbers and bartenders way more things than you’d ever expect,’” Barham recalled.

Barham said it was the welcoming atmosphere that attracted people to the shop. It was a space where people could unwind for an hour and tell Bob about what was happening in their lives and catch up on his.

Barham points to the time islander Holden Withington got his 50th anniversary haircut from Schmaus at the Islander Barbershop as an example of the types of relationships Bob strove to cultivate inside his shop everyday. According to Barham, Withington got his first haircut from Bob at 9 months old in 1958 and again when he was 50 years old.

Before the shop

Bob was born in Sisseton, S.D., in 1931 and was raised on his family’s farm. He woke up early to help milk the cows by hand and bring in the hay with a team of horses. Later, Bob was enlisted in the army during the Korean war and after used the GI Bill to help pay for barber schooling.

Barham doesn’t know exactly what drew her father to seek a career as a barber, but suspects her father’s sister and their father — who both cut hair — influenced him to pursue the career.

Today, the building is no longer there, but Barham still has the barber pole that hung outside the shop all those years a momento to her and the many hours he spent at the shop with the community he loved.

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