A Chair of His Own.

For 61 years, Virgil Osburn cut hair in Sparta, Mo. After his death in 1999, his famed barber’s chair sat empty. Then Adam Struble picked up the shears to continue one of the town’s richest traditions.

story by Roman Stubbs / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published July 3, 2012

On a late June afternoon, an older gentleman sits quietly in Struble’s Barber Shop in Sparta, Mo., waiting on deck to get his hair cut by the young barber.

While the gentlemen waits, he doesn’t read a magazine. He doesn’t watch the television in the corner. He doesn’t gossip. From across the room, he stares straight ahead at the single work station of 28-year-old barber Adam Struble, who is steadily sculpting another local’s hair into a retro fade. Brown hair is floating from the trimmer to the ground, landing around the rusty base of an antique Koken barber’s chair. While Struble searches for angles, the man is waiting, searching for answers.

The older gentleman has been coming here for years, where he has witnessed the end of an era and the rebirth of another. He finally says something to the preoccupied Struble, only the second man to own this shop since 1933.

“Is that Virgil’s chair?” he asks the barber.

“Yep,” says Struble, proudly. “Did Virgil ever cut you?”

The man nods. He’s an older Spartan, and if you’re an older Spartan, your barber was always Virgil. The man just can’t remember the old Koken chair being so handsome, though of course he remembers Virgil. Everybody remembers Virgil.

In May 1929, shortly after graduating from Springfield Barber College, Virgil Osburn brought that same chair to a narrow corner shop on Main Street in Sparta. For 61 years, it was the chair where tales of 100-pound trout and 30-point bucks came alive, where FDR, Nixon and Reagan received their lashings and praise, where the Cardinals won seven World Series titles. Virgil’s Barber Shop is where boys grew to men. [1]

“He’d smoke them old cigars when he cut your hair,” says Melvin White, a 55-year-old native of Sparta. “He’d chew the ends. Sometimes he would drop ashes on your back and have to dust them off, because he was getting to tell some big tale while he was cutting your hair.”

White remembers the Koken chair well. It disappeared after Virgil died in 1999. He was 92. The shop had closed down five years earlier, in 1994, after Virgil retired. Sparta had been left without a true barbershop.

A few hundred miles away, the heir to Virgil’s chair was just starting to learn the ways of the barber. Adam Struble was just 10 years old.

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Virgil's original chair, now back in its original home.
Virgil’s original chair, now back in its original home in Sparta, Mo.

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In 1994, Struble was only starting to experiment with barbering in Sioux City, Iowa, cutting all the neighborhood kids’ hair on front porches or on front lawns. His family pooled their money together for one of his earliest birthdays to buy him clippers, and Struble started doing his brother’s hair every few weeks. More and more kids began to ask him to cut their hair, and soon the adults were asking, too. “I’ve always thought of barbering as art,” says Struble, “because you’re sculpting.”

Struble was always a student of the craft. He learned how to steady his hands and how to use angles, and he learned how to create a barbershop that felt both welcoming and down to earth. When the Strubles were living in Nebraska, he was a regular at Dwayne Freeman’s joint in Laurel, Neb. Freeman has been cutting hair in Laurel for more than 40 years, and was a friend of Struble’s father.

Struble never told Freeman about his secret ambition of becoming a barber — he would just silently study Freeman’s movements and how he ran his shop. This was how Struble would operate his shop one day — he would be personable like Freeman, too; he would ask the young kids about their day at school; he would give them high-fives like Freeman gave him.

“I was surprised when he became a barber,” says Freeman. “At that age, nowadays, they become hair stylists, beauticians. To become a barber is really unusual. He knew what he wanted to do.”

This was how Struble would operate his shop one day — he would be personable like Freeman, too; he would ask the young kids about their day at school; he would give them high-fives like Freeman gave him.

The Strubles eventually completed their tour of Midwest moves in Ozark, Mo., and Struble saw his opening to enter the trade. Seventy years after Virgil had earned his degree at the Springfield Barber College, Struble officially took up the shears. He had just moved to the Ozarks, and he knew he wanted a career as a barber. So Struble put his 1,000 hours in at the Academy of Hair Design — where a large percentage of the students were female and looking to enter the salon and cosmetics trade.

Struble entered a marketplace decidedly unfriendly to the modern barber. Barbershops were once important social institutions — in the early- to mid-20th century, these were places woven into the mold of American masculinity. The “Golden Age” of the barbershop came after the Korean War, when there about 380,000 barbers working across America, according to Charles Kirkpatrick, executive director of the National Barber Board of America. By 1970, thanks to the Beatles invasion of America, that number had dwindled to about 180,000 barbers, Kirkpatrick says. John, Paul, George and Ringo made long hair desirable, and Kirkpatrick says haircuts seemed to go out of style.

Longer hair and fully grown beards became cavalier yet powerful styles of the hippie movement. Image in American culture was changing, and an appetite grew for the beauty parlors built for speed and vanity.

Things haven’t gotten much better for today’s barbers. Today, there are nearly 12 cosmetologists for every barber in America, and a study led by Kirkpatrick in 2009 found that the average age of U.S. barbers is 59. Places like Virgil’s Barber Shop were becoming underground establishments.

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Adam Struble, the new barber in town.
Adam Struble may be the new barber in town, but his storefront — and his barber’s chair — feel awfully familiar to many locals.

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Two years after graduating from the Academy of Hair Design, Struble had bounced around from barbershop to barbershop. He knew he wanted to open his own place, and he’d been hearing stories about an old barber in Sparta who’d closed down just a few years earlier.

He decided he wanted to try to resurrect Virgil’s old spot and become the barber of Sparta.

The decision had the potential to be a grand disaster. For one thing, Virgil’s storefront needed a heavy facelift. It was creaky, with cracks in the seal that let bats in during the day. It was missing the scent of aftershave and freshly cut hair. Struble put in new work cabinets, slapped a coat of cabbage-colored paint on the walls, and had indoor plumbing installed in the back. [2] He put an old Coke machine in the corner, with a “for sale” emblem on the front; there’s a Norman Rockwell print above a vintage cream-colored couch, and a buck that Virgil shot in 1955 in an Ozark forest hangs in another corner.

The last thing Struble had to do was find Virgil’s Koken chair. The chair had popped up at a flea market sale in Ozark after Virgil’s death, and a Springfield barber snatched it for his shop. When Struble went out on his own, he needed a centerpiece for his life’s work, and he needed the historical touch of Virgil in his shop. He offered a stack of cash for the old Koken. The Springfield barber accepted.

Struble had bounced around in shops in Ozark and Springfield for a couple of years. He thought he could get a few of his loyalists to continue to be his customers, and he did. But his greatest challenge would be convincing the older generation in Sparta that he could be their barber. He was never going to replace Virgil, that much was obvious, but he wanted to prove to the town that he was steady in hand and mind. Many thought he was straight out of high school.

“Every now and again, I still feel a little pressure,” he says. “I mean, 69 years? How do you even match up to that, cutting hair and being a part of this town and this community for such a long time? One thing I’ve learned is that I’ve just gotta stay true to my colors and gain people’s trust.”

Struble has made strides. His clientele has grown steadily over the past eight years, and he is now an alderman on the Sparta City Council. The breakthrough came a few years into his new shop, when a crew of old-timers came in one afternoon and stayed for about three hours. They were all Vietnam veterans; one was Army, one Air Force, one Marine. Vietnam veterans are notorious for bottling their stories up inside, never speaking about combat. But that afternoon, as the veterans all traded turns in the Koken, they spoke freely about their tours. The stories about dealing with coming home to Sparta after the war poured out of them. There are heated discussions about hunting and politics every day in the shop, and Struble is the moderator. But this was the most emotional day in Struble’s history, and Struble knew at that moment that he was going to all right. He knew then that his clients felt comfortable enough in his new shop to talk about heavy things, just the way they’d always felt in Virgil’s shop.

Struble is still honing his craft; he gives about 20 haircuts a day, and about two shaves a week. He wears a T-shirt and cargo shorts to work in the summer, and keeps his hair buzzed. He’s known around town simply as “Barber.” On the June day that he gets an earful about the Supreme Court upholding Obamacare from a few older customers [3], Struble closes up the afternoon with a cut for a young boy. The boy’s father is sitting on the cream-colored couch a few feet away, watching his son’s soft brown hair fall to the ground.

“Don’t even say anything, Dad,” says the boy, nervous that his father is going to tease him.

“Well, you look better than before,” the father says back to him.

Struble lifts the cape, and the boy springs out of the chair. “See ya, buddy,” Struble says to the boy, who turns and gives his barber a high-five, smiling.

After they walk out, Struble turns his sign to the “CLOSED” side, and clicks the lights off. Eventually, he starts to clean his station up around Virgil’s old Koken chair.

“I’ve never met Virgil,” he says. “But I feel like I know him.”