Tony Gallegos estimates he’s worn out 20 pairs of shears during the 43 years he’s cut hair at College Plaza Hair Design.
He won’t be going through a 21st pair; he plans to retire June 13.
After Gallegos, a Vietnam War-era draftee who served in West Germany, got out of the Army in 1967, he wanted to be his own boss.
He saw working as a barber as his best bet. He had family and friends in the business, and a barber’s chair seemed a good fit.
“I used my veterans benefits to pay for barber college,” the 73-year-old Durango native said.
Forty-three years at College Plaza are testament that he made the right choice.
The business allowed him to build an adobe house between Ignacio and Bondad and raise three children.
After graduating from Colorado Barber College in Denver, he spent two years as an apprentice to legendary Denver barber Walter Young, who ran the The Upper Cut on East Colfax Avenue from 1969 to 2009.
After his stint in Denver, Gallegos returned to Durango.
He worked a few years at the Sanitary Barber Shop, which was on Main Avenue between Ninth and 10th streets, “just down from the Woolworth’s.” Then, after the Main Avenue fire in August 1974, he worked briefly with longtime Durango barber Amador Tucson at Tucson’s Barber Shop, near the Old Main Post Office. He opened College Plaza Hair Design in 1976, when the shopping strip was built.
He has remained at College Plaza with the help of his wife, Nora, ever since.
“I’m going to miss seeing the patrons, keeping up with their lives, but time marches on,” he said.
Tucson, 79, said Gallegos is making the smart decision to retire.
“I don’t even want to plan to retire,” Tucson said. “Maybe when I’m 100. There is going to come a time.”
Gallegos never had much use for advertising.
His business model relied on regulars and neighborhood business. By word of mouth, he said, the message gets around that he was a pretty fair barber.
“I tried to take care of them the best I could. I guess I accomplished that,” he said. “The main thing is to help people.”
Steve Ashburn, who has visited Gallegos for his haircuts since moving from Denver in 1974, wandered in Thursday for a haircut.
“He gave my son his first haircut. He gave my grandson his first haircut,” Ashburn said.
“I won’t be able to tell you how my trip to Alaska went,” Ashburn told Gallegos after learning he’d be looking for a new barber.
“I’ll have to get your number,” Gallegos told him.
Gallegos said it’s visits like the one Ashburn’s planning to Alaska that have retirement beckoning.
Nora and he visited Alaska once, “but only for a week.” Gallegos added, “We’d like to go for a longer time.”
Nora said she looks forward to a slower pace and traveling with no particular plan.
“Just visit a place, and when you get tired of it, move on,” she said.
A good chunk of Gallegos’ clientele wandered through College Plaza’s doors after moving to the area or during their time at Fort Lewis College.
Gallegos said Durango, with its plentiful outdoor opportunities, cultural attractions and FLC, is a good home, and he’s benefited from a growing population.
“A lot of kids at FLC, they want to stay,” he said. “They’ll find jobs, or they’ll make their own.”
More than a few FLC students have marveled at his 1950s cash register.
“They ask how it works. I tell them you push in the numbers then pull the crank. They say, ‘What, without electricity?’” he said with a chuckle. “Kids can’t make change. They need a computer.”
Barbershops, Gallegos said, functioned as early community centers.
Fishing and hunting are the most popular subjects for banter at College Plaza.
Political discussions, he said, are more amicable at a barbershop than almost anywhere else.
“It was always, ‘You have your opinion and I have mine,’ and the voting took care of everything else,” he said.
Veterans causes have remained close to Gallegos’ heart since he left the Army.
He has offered free haircuts to veterans during the Four Corners Veterans Stand Down Day, and Gallegos said he likely will offer free haircuts for the event after he closes his shop.
But now, it’s time to slow down.
He remembers visiting a castle in Kohlberg, Germany, that included a giant clock built in 1492 “that still kept good time.”
“It was a beauty, an art piece really,” he said. “It was amazing it still worked. I’d like to go back, maybe, but it’s pretty expensive now.”