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Magic Razor's Al Soehn Is Closing his Barbershop After 41 Years

By Patty Wetli | June 28, 2013 11:15am
 Barber Al Soehn hangs up his scissors after 41 years in North Center.
The Last Days of Magic Razor
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NORTH CENTER — On Saturday, Al Soehn will open up his barbershop the same as he's been doing for the past 41 years. Customers will be lined up six to seven deep and he'll steadily cut hair all day, one client at a time in the shop's single barber's chair, maybe taking a break for lunch but more than likely not.

Come closing, he'll turn the lock at 2211 W. Grace St. one last time, and just like that a North Center institution will pass into memory.

"Thinking about it, it's going to be very, very sad," said the 75-year-old, who bought Magic Razor in 1972. "It was a big decision. I don't want to walk out with a cane."

Soehn immigrated to Chicago from Germany in 1956 with his parents and four brothers and has been cutting hair since 1961. Stepping into Magic Razor — purchased for $33,000 — with its wood paneling, linoleum flooring and vinyl waiting chairs is bit like stumbling into an episode of "Mad Men," save for the flat-screen TV on the wall.

Haircuts may no longer cost $1.50 and Soehn may no longer come to work in dress shoes — he now favors gym shoes and added a padded floor mat under the barber's chair to cushion his feet — but he otherwise made few concessions to the 21st Century.

Though his old-school approach — no appointments taken, no shampooing, no styling — may hearken back to an earlier era, it's earned him a loyal following among successive generations of North Side men.

"The first time I tried it, you walk out smelling like a barbershop, not Super Cuts," said Mark Sutton, who's lived just blocks from Magic Razor for the past seven years.

"This was one of my personal rites of passage — the first time I came in and Al knew me and what kind of haircut I wanted," said Sutton. Eventually Sutton began bringing his two young sons to Al's, at six-year-old Elliott's request.

"The first time, I was so nervous. I thought he was going to make a mistake and cut me," said the junior Sutton. "I'm pretty bummed that it's closing. I don't know why he's leaving."

Soehn doesn't seem quite sure why either.

"Every other day, I don't know if I'm doing the right thing," he said.

Sure, he has plans to pursue his passion for angling and spend more time with his nine grandchildren — Soehn and his wife Anna have three sons who live in Peoria and in the Chicago suburbs.

But one gets the sense that Soehn is, if anything, a man who likes his routines.

He alone among his siblings remained in the city, settling less than a mile from the family's original apartment at Montrose and Seeley avenues. He and Anna met dancing at Zum Deutschen Eck just down the road on Southport Avenue and were married at nearby St. Benedict's, where their boys attended elementary school and eventually married too.

Today, he and Anna live in the two-flat across from the barbershop. She brings him coffee every afternoon.

The thing is, he's still enjoying cutting hair.

"I like my job a lot," said Soehn.

The past 10 to 15 years, he's gained confidence, he said, and opened up more to customers.

"To me, it's not even work," he said. "You feel like you've achieved something. You get to become friends with the guys."

Ironically, Soehn has chosen to hang up his scissors — he sold Magic Razor to a developer, with the lot slated for a residential conversion — at a point when barbershops are beginning to make a comeback, ever so slowly recovering from a downward spiral that wiped out most of his peers in the 1970s.

The trend from short hair to long hair was bad for business, Soehn said.

"The youngsters didn't go for haircuts," he recalled, and their elders soon followed suit.

Customers who used to come in for cuts every two to four weeks started going months between visits, a trend that is now reversing.

"Now it's short again. You can't even make it short enough. I've got a couple of guys who come in every week," said Soehn.

Shaving around the ears, the old-fashioned haircut that Soehn's been practicing for decades, is suddenly cool again and his services are in more demand than ever.

That he can leave the business at the top of his game is satisfying to Soehn.

"It's gotta come to an end sooner or later," he said. "I've had a great run. Longer than I would have thought."

Stop by Magic Razor, 3-4 p.m. on Saturday, for pizza and a chance to say good-bye to Al.