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Monday, June 21, 2021

A 49-year legacy of hair cuts and Southern hospitality

A picture of Von Brockington trimming hair

Von Brockington, a barber at The Reitz Union Barber Shop, is seen trimming John Smith’s hair on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020.

Smiling eyes and the faint fragrance of shaving cream greet patrons as they enter the barbershop on the ground floor of UF’s Reitz Union. The grey tile floors, black leather chairs and Gator sports memorabilia bring a sense of old school, hometown comfort to the building’s business-oriented atmosphere. 

The Reitz Union Barber Shop has been serving customers on UF’s campus since 1967 and current owner and manager Jay Jarrell has been around almost every step of the way. Over his 49 years there, he and the shop have survived major downsizing, building renovations and now, a global pandemic. 

Jarrell followed in his father’s footsteps by becoming a barber. In his hometown of Miami, his dad, John David Jarrell, graduated from and eventually owned Miami Barber College. Jarrell also attended college and became a barber at the age of 16, when he had to cut his dad’s hair and shave his beard for his final exam. 

Shaving was never one of his strong suits, Jarrell said. 

In the fall of 1971, Jarrell moved to Gainesville, and after quitting his job at the local Sears Automotive Department, started working at the shop as a UF psychology student. Soon after, his dad sold the barber colleges in Miami and decided to buy the Reitz Union Barber Shop.

About 35 years ago, Jarrell bought the shop from his father and took over as manager. 

When COVID-19 caused campus to close during the Spring semester, Jarrell knew things would look different for the shop when campus reopened again in Fall. The shop closed on March 21 and reopened on May 11, after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order to allow barbershops and other cosmetic businesses to open. 

Before UF required students to leave campus, business was already declining, Jarrell said. Many students had already gone home. This semester, Jarrell has been able to pay his bills, but business is not the same. The shop has seen about 40% of the amount of clients a typical October would have, Jarrell said.  

The shop is not financially supported by the university, so it relies completely on clients and service for profit. UF gave Jarrell a break on rent during April, and two months of relief to compensate for COVID-19, Jarrell said. 

“Normally, October is our busiest month,” Jarrell said. “I would never be able to go play golf on a Friday morning.”

To keep up with COVID-19 guidelines, clients wear their mask for the duration of their appointment. Jarrell has clients hold their mask over their nose and mouth if they want their beard trimmed, and shaves one half of their face at a time. 

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The sanitation of equipment between clients is similar to a barber’s typical process, Jarrell said. He sweeps the floor, wipes down the chair and sanitizes all of the tools before another person sits down.

A picture of John Smith getting a hair cut

John Smith, a retired construction and restaurant worker, is seen getting his hair trimmed at the Reitz Union Barber Shop on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. Smith said he always goes to Von Brockington because he makes his morning better.

The shop still takes appointments and walk-ins, but students are no longer allowed to wait in the shop for their barber to be ready for them. Jarrell asks that they take advantage of the seating out in the Reitz common areas instead. 

Even at 69 years old, Jarrell was not nervous about returning to work. He was confident in his ability to maintain a sanitary environment. 

“I’m going to do everything I can to keep from catching it,” Jarrell said. “But if I was really worried, I wouldn’t be working.” 

The Reitz Union Barber Shop that exists today is much smaller than the original shop built in 1967, Jarrell said. It was 1,100 square feet and had 10 stations. About 20 years ago, it became difficult to keep that shop busy because it was so big, he said. 

Jarrell had a conversation with his buddy Michael Schwartz, former dean of UF pharmaceutics, about problem solving and the challenge of maintaining such a large space. 

“I thought, ‘Well, how can I make this work without just working 60 hours a week for the rest of my life?’” Jarrell said. 

Downsizing was the answer. In 2010, Jarrell signed a new lease with UF and moved into the smaller space. Now, the shop has three stations and a glass window from floor to ceiling, looking into one of the main hallways at the Reitz. 

During his time working on UF’s campus, Jarrell has had countless students and notable professors sit in his chair. He said one of his favorite clients was the late Ralph Lowenstein, who served as dean of UF’s College of Journalism and Communications for 18 years. 

“I cut his hair about a week before he passed,” Jarrell said. “He was pretty vibrant and pretty healthy right up until the very end.”

The university brings him the best types of clients a barber could ask for, he said. 

“This clientele is elite clientele,” Jarrell said. “Everyone has good communication skills and they're not shy about telling me what they want so it's pretty easy to please people.”  

A picture of Von Brockington trimming John Smith's hair

Von Brockington, a barber at the Reitz Union Barber Shop, trims John Smith’s hair on Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. Brockington’s worked at the Reitz Barber Shop since 2005.

In the shop, Jarrell works alongside the 39-year-old, gregarious Von Brockington. Brockington is quick with a joke, and casually refers to customers as “Buddy.” The Gainesville native has been working at the Reitz Union Barber Shop since 2004 and doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon, unless he wins the lottery, he said. 

It’s Jarrell’s funny, warm spirit that makes working at the shop so special, Brockington said. 

“In a barbershop, you kind of work for yourself so to be able to work with people you get along with is always good,” Brockington said. 

When UF President Kent Fuchs arrived at the university in 2015, he asked Jarrell if he was getting ready to retire. Jarrell told Fuchs he will stay as long as he is president of UF. 

Talk of Jarrell leaving the shop was sad for Brockington. It doesn’t matter who is in charge, as long as he still comes around, Brockington said. 

“I don’t want to think about the bird leaving,” Brockington said. “That’ll be a sad day.”

As he approaches 70, Jarrell hopes to transition from manager to a supporting role. In five years, he would like to see Brockington running the shop so that Jarrell can play golf and be a good husband to his wife of 45 years. 

“I see Von thriving and me chilling,” Jarrell said. “My wife’s been waiting a long time to have more time with me.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Jarrell. A previous version reported otherwise.

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