The Cutting Crew
Three barber shops in downtown Crystal Lake open their doors to the public for great cuts and lively conversation.
Imagine a place that offers good conversation and a platform for visitors to share stories in a friendly atmosphere. A place that’s easy to find by a red, white and blue pole outside that spins to let passersby know it’s open for business. People leave sporting a sharp haircut on their heads and a spring in their steps. We’re talking barber shops – and walkins are welcome!
Downtown Crystal Lake is home to three unique barber shops within walking distance. With names like Joe’s, O’Grady’s and Slim’s, these shops suggest a casual, family-like environment where all are welcome to experience a time-honored tradition that dates back to ancient Greece.
The history behind these treasures is as remarkable as the stories told daily within their four walls. And would you believe the shop owners are all friends with some relationships spanning decades? They relish in camaraderie, share clients and help promote each other, as well as other downtown businesses. After all, to succeed as a barber, first and foremost, you must perfect the art of friendliness.
Joe’s: The Master Celebrates 50 Years
Joseph G. Scotillo, who opened the 29 N. Williams St. location in 1960, did not live to see his shop celebrate its golden anniversary this year. He passed away last April at 87 years old, but his legend lives on every day at the shop. It’s without a doubt that he would be proud of his successors.
“Joe set the high standards for this barber shop,” Owner Jack McArdle said. “He told his staff to never forget where you got your start and to listen carefully to clients.”
In return, Scotillo listened to his staff. “Like a restaurant, the boss must listen to the wait staff – they’re the ones talking to the people at the table,” McArdle said.
McArdle remembers Scotillo well. After all, Scotillo took him under his wing from the beginning. “He brought me up with him,” McArdle said. In the ’60s and ’70s, the pair used to go to downtown Chicago every Wednesday for training to keep up on the styles.
In 1986, upon his retirement, Scotillo sold the shop to McArdle and Leroy Zoellick. McArdle became the sole owner in 1996 when he purchased Zoellick’s share of the business.
Operating with the belief that “Our place is your place,” Joe’s plans to be around for another 50 years. “It’s a relaxing atmosphere where the customer is always first,” he said. “We’re that place you can come to just for the company. Stop by, say hello, read the paper and visit. That’s what it’s all about.”
The shop’s nine barbers get along famously. “It’s unbelievable,” McArdle said. “When someone comes here to work, they stay. It’s a good atmosphere within these four walls. We do things in a professional way, but remember to have fun with people. We’re a comedy team.”
Although Scotillo ran more of an old-school barber shop, he hired the first female barber in Kim Thomson in 1982. “You have to open your mind to lady barbers,” McArdle said.
Part of the reluctance to include women in barber shops in the early days was the fear that the dynamics of the shop would change. Beauty shops, where women traditionally worked, were a more intimate setting where the stylist and client had more one-on-one conversations, according to McArdle. Barber shops are more of an open atmosphere where everyone engages in conversation. That tradition didn’t seem to bother Joe’s lady barbers.
“They have fun with it,” McArdle said. “The nice part about having men and women here is that the cosmetologists learned from barbers and vice versa.”
The barbers at Joe’s are highly trained to create “every style imaginable,” McArdle said. The shop offers everything from flattops and fades to executive haircuts and trendy styles. In addition to skill, the ability to listen to clients is by far the key ingredient to a happy haircut, he said.
In 2005, Downtown Crystal Lake welcomed a new kid in town, Kevin “Slim the Barber” Slimko, Woodstock Street. “I was the first one to welcome him,” McArdle said. “It was a thrill to have a young male barber start up – so refreshing.
McArdle says he treats Slimko like one of his own kids. He also has a good relationship Julia O’Grady, who worked with him at Joe’s for 16 years and now owns O’Grady’s down the street.
“Remember, we’re not competition, we work together,” he said. “You treat people well and you bring traffic to downtown.”
Having observed the area evolve over the past 50 years, McArdle said he “watched it grow to become a wonderful place to be. Every day, there is something exciting going on. All of the businesses work together. Everyone works hard to keep appearances up.”
Many showed up at the shop to celebrate the 50-year anniversary on June 5.
O’Grady’s: An Apprentice Proves Herself
It’s hard enough for a woman to pursue a historically male-driven profession such as barbering. Imagine opening up the first female-owned barber shop in your county down the street from your mentor – talk about pressure! That’s exactly what Julia O’Grady did in 2001 when she opened O’Grady’s at 91 N. Williams St. Her advantage was great chops of her own and a supportive community.
“The big challenge was that barber shops are very male-dominated, but I rolled the dice and hoped for the best,” she said.
She somewhat built O’Grady’s from the ground up. There has been a barber shop on the corner of Woodstock and Williams St. where O’Grady’s is currently located since the early 1900s when it was part of the historic Blethen Hotel and Tea Room. When O’Grady purchased the building in ’01, however, she “it was a mess.”
I did it the way I thought it should be done by updating it, putting in hardwood floors and overall giving it a really clean look,” she said. “I took it one day at a time, remodeling as I went along and tweaking it to my liking.”
O’Grady, a Chicago native with 23 years of experience under her belt, felt it was the right time to leave the nest of Joe’s, where she worked for 14 years. “Jack [McArdle] was my mentor,” she said. “I watched him for 14 years. I liked the way he handled himself.”
People thought O’Grady, 15 years McArdle’s junior, was his daughter at first, next, his sister, and later, his wife, O’Grady jokes.
And despite his one-time hesitation to hire women barbers, Joe’s namesake Joe Scotillo liked O’Grady, who replaced him when he retired in 1986.
“Joe said, ‘O’Grady, you’re made of good stuff,’” she recalled fondly.
As a side note, Scotillo operated Joe’s out of O’Grady’s building in 1954 before opening at 29 Williams St. It was there where he became close friends with fellow barber James “Jimmy” Dercole, who, after 53 years in the business, still works one day a week at O’Grady’s. “Joe was Jimmy’s mentor and very best friend,” O’Grady said.
It was a “fluke” O’Grady even found out about the open barber position at Joe’s back in the late ’80s. She stumbled upon a “barber wanted” ad in Crystal Lake when reading a small Huntley farm newspaper. O’Grady was living and working in Lincoln Park at the time, but had at one point lived in Huntley, so was familiar with the area.
“I knew I didn’t want to stay in Chicago, but in comparison [McHenry County] was a no-man’s land,” O’Grady explained. “It was a very hard transition. But it wasn’t about where I worked, it was about finding purpose and staying put. I wanted to be a barber and didn’t want to get sucked into the phony bologna in Chicago.”
Her mother’s simple words to “do this” helped further cement her decision. “She and my dad worked in real estate,” O’Grady said. “She could see that everything was moving toward the ’burbs.”
She’s found Crystal Lake a great place to call home. “I enjoy the community atmosphere here,” she said. “You get to know people and I like that.”
O’Grady’s sees everyone from doctors and lawyers to blue-collar workers pass through its doors. “You learn so much from people by just talking to them,” O’Grady said. “You get into some really interesting conversations. It’s quite a social life.”
O’Grady has become a mentor in her own right. She guides the staff, which includes her son Joshua, to be polite and get along with each other. “You’re the captain of your own ship behind the chair,” she said. “This isn’t just a job, it’s an art. Precision haircutting demands that you know how to work those tools.
“We have to hustle sometimes, but if you have a hard haircut, we take time and make it right,” she continues. “You want your clients to come back and tell others to ‘go there, it’s a fun place.’”
Slim’s: New Kid Welcomed With Open Arms
It’s never easy being the new kid in town, just ask Kevin “Slim the Barber” Slimko, who opened Slim’s Barber Shop at 77 E. Woodstock St. in 2005. “I was extremely nervous about the competition and reception from other shops,” he said.
He was pleasantly surprised at the outpouring of support from his neighbors and fellow barbers.
“Joe [Scotillo] came down and wished me luck,” Slimko said. “He made me feel really good. Jack [McArdle] came to meet me when I opened. He’s like the godfather of downtown barbers. When you need advice, he’s like talking to Don Corleone.”
He also has a great rapport with Julia O’Grady, with whom he worked during the St. Baldrick’s Foundation’s charity event in March. “We shaved heads side by side to raise money childhood cancer research,” he said. “It was a good time.”
Slimko admires McArdle’s ability to get shopkeepers to support different causes, from small gestures like signing a birthday card for a fellow shop owner to larger-scale matters. “[His kindness] really put me at ease when I opened up. I certainly didn’t want to be the new guy that no one liked.”
Slimko opened shop in Crystal Lake for a number of reasons. His family lived in the suburbs for a few years and he was tiring of a long commute to his father-in-law Marino “Jun” Lagatuz’s Model Barber Shop in Chicago. The location on Woodstock Street offered affordable rent and the high-traffic location ensured good visibility.
Although he started cutting hair in his dad’s garage in Algonquin at 14 years old, Slimko’s career took a different path after college. After receiving his bachelor’s degree in communications, he held positions in customer service and video production. “I didn’t like what I was doing,” he said, “so I went back to school and got my cosmetology license.”
He calls it a blessing that he shadowed Lagatuz before embarking upon his own shop. “I worked with him for five years, garnering a ton of fade and flat-top experience,” he said.
Slim started out solo, but now employs three barbers. Today, the crew specializes in military-style haircuts and fades, but can do virtually any cut upon request, including graphics. “All ages come through our doors and kids like some of the newer styles, but mostly real short haircuts,” he said. “I also have a diverse clientele and attract a variety of ethnicities, which is unique for a white barber.”
Though a younger man himself, he is respectful of the barbers who came before him and carries on their traditions in his shop. “I remember a quote I read from a barber that said, ‘Cutting hair is only 50 percent of being a barber.’
“The other half is listening. You have to pay attention to how the client wants to look. I try to make sure the customer controls the conversation. That’s really important.”