A Barber and a Friend

If you've lived in Madison over the past several decades, there's a good chance you – or your children – have paid a visit to Rick's Roffler, a local barbershop on South Park Street. Owned for 47 years by Rick Meier, 71, the tiny business continues to thrive, while its owner contemplates hanging up his clippers.

The shop is for sale now, but that doesn't stop Meier's devoted clientele from jamming its appointment calendar, and it's easy to understand why: Because a trip to Rick's isn't about haircuts at all, it seems. It's about friendships, storytelling, and memories of days long gone.

"I've been a regular since 1963," says customer Jim Johnson, in for his usual trim. "I was working at Master Blueprint down the block (now MasterGraphics). One day there was a knock on the door and there was Rick. 'I'm opening my own shop on Park, and I'd appreciate your business,' he said." They've been friends and hunting buddies ever since.

Shades of Mayberry?

It's clear Meier takes his job and his friendships seriously. "I like this job because I like to talk to people," he says. "It's rewarding. You learn a lot. People of all occupations have sat in this chair. I'd get good advice, and they'd get a good haircut.

"I've been a psychiatrist many times, too, which is not good when people are going through a divorce. You have to sort things out and keep things confidential. And I've been to many funerals over the years. That's the personal touch."

Originally from Monticello, Wis., Meier has been cutting hair since graduating from Lincoln Barber College in Moline, Ill. in 1960. He originally moved back to Wisconsin to attend UW-Madison, but started at MATC and stuck with it. Back then, he explained, after nine months of barber school, it would take another five years to get a Wisconsin license. After attending MATC for two and a half years, he served as an apprentice and journeyman before getting a master's license in beauty and barbering.

"He never used the beauty part on me," laughs Johnson, listening in.

"I got the beauty license to keep up with Fantastic Sams and other franchises that started moving in," Meier explained. He worked at a couple of downtown shops prior to opening on Park Street in 1965, then moved across the street to his current location in 1970.

"When I opened my own shop, I was making as much as the teachers back then, $8,000 a year."

Johnson pipes in: "That's when lawyers made $10,000 to $11,000 a year."

The chatter continues. Is this Rick's Roffler Hair Salon on Park Street, or Floyd's Barber Shop in Mayberry? Surely, Andy Griffith will walk in next.

After paying Meier, Johnson doesn't leave, preferring to hang around the shop and chat with whomever comes through the door. A gent named John follows, then Chuck after him, and the line continues throughout the day. Chuck, one of the founders of Middleton Community Bank, has called Meier a friend since 1963. He and Meier became fishing buddies, and although he lives in the town of Middleton, he still travels to South Park Street because Meier is still his barber.

Trimming the business

Rick's Roffler used to employ as many as seven people, but now Meier is a one-man band, offering shaves, occasional facials, and hair replacements. "We're full-service. I still cut women's hair, do perms and color, but usually I'll refer them next door."

"Next door" is actually under the same roof and through the waiting area, where another salon, The Headquarters, has been renting three chairs and salon space since 1991. "Customers get two salons in one here," Meier says proudly.

The entire building, though dated, is quaintly appointed with five salon chairs, a hair-drying room, and a washer and dryer. Meier seems particularly proud that the business can wash and dry its own towels. "That's a big expense otherwise," he notes. "It could cost $80 to $100 a week if you have a service do them for you, so this saves a lot of money."

Money has not eluded Meier over the years, as barbering wasn't his only profession. Early on, he became involved in real estate, owning apartments and flipping houses when the market was good, and he still owns 31 acres in northern Wisconsin and 10 acres in Arizona. Eight years ago, he decided to trim his schedule to part-time, working three and a half days a week so he could split his time between Madison and the home he and his wife built in Algoma.

When he first entered the barbering profession, haircuts cost $5 each. Now he charges $25 for a style and $18 for a cut. It's a steal, apparently, as Chuck points out with a laugh. "John Edwards was paying $500 for a haircut, and Meier only gets us for $20!"

It's all about covering expenses, Meier explains. "The main thing is to make enough profit to run the business without dipping into savings. I've always had such a steady clientele. Today I'll see 18 people and be done by 3 p.m."

Even though it's the day of the Wisconsin recall election, the atmosphere in the shop is jovial. Johnson finally bids adieu as he heads out to cast his vote. "It will be interesting," he says to the other men. "At church, I'm afraid to say anything to anyone about that." Meier responds, never taking his eyes off Chuck's head, "I don't like to argue about politics." With that, the conversation turns to anything but politics.

Meier was trained in the Roffler technique of hair cutting, hence the shop's name. "Roffler is a sculpturing method," he explains. "I do a lot of razor cutting using the Roffler technique. It makes the hair lay better. You cut the hair from the top down instead of from the bottom up." Years ago, he says, Roffler had 5,000 shops nationwide, and he still uses and sells Roffler hair products.

The shop was one of the first in Madison, he says, to switch to appointment-only. "Nobody thought I'd make it, but 90% of the downtown customers I had followed me to Park Street."

In fact, he's more than made it, and nearly 50 years later, the stories are endless . . . "Chet Huntley came in once," Meier says, and when the city experienced a power outage one year, he moved his clients outside and cut hair in the parking lot. Then there was the time a customer's hair turned purple, the result of a dye's reaction to the customer's heart medication, which the customer failed to mention. The amount of time it took to reverse the unexpected result led to one of the few times Meier ran significantly late for his next appointment, as he prides himself on never being more than five to 10 minutes behind.

Hair today, gone tomorrow?

He was front and center when crew cuts and flattops gave way in the 1960s to Beatles-inspired mop tops. "Roffler School taught me how to cut long hair, but many of my friends quit because they couldn't." And for those who wished they had longer hair, there was a time when Meier would book between 50 and 60 hair replacements a year. Now he gets half as many requests.

Rick's Roffler was simply the place to be back then. "Years ago, if you drove by and saw a friend's car here, you'd stop in. You didn't have to go out for a drink [to socialize], you could just cruise our parking lot. I met a lot of people – particularly through business contacts," he noted.

Once Chuck leaves, Robert, 92, settles comfortably into Meier's chair. Retired for 30 years, Robert was once a Madison insurance adjuster and has been a faithful Rick's Roffler customer since 1962. "He gives a good haircut, and he's a good person," Robert says. "I didn't want to go anywhere else."

Meier says his salon once earned between $65,000 and $75,000 a year, and he reports it still generates over $50,000 a year. "Several years ago, we had about 680 steady customers. Last year the business lost about 30."

The recession, he says, has lengthened the time between haircuts for many clients, and affected his income. Now, as the city plans to redevelop much of the Park Street area, a neighborhood Meier has thoroughly enjoyed and thrived in for decades, he hopes to sell his business along with a duplex he owns next door. "I want to enjoy what I've made and spend more time with my wife," he says. He's received several inquiries, but no firm bites.

But there's another reason Meier would like to sell. Two years ago, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, a fact he kept from many of his regular customers for quite a while. Five tumors in his chest have been kept in check through chemo. "The doctors told me that if I can get past two years, I could die from something else, so I'm very positive."

And he cherishes every day. By week's end, he'll be fishing for bluegills with his wife, in his new boat. "It's too bad we all have to wait until our later years to live the way we've always wanted," he sighs, content to look forward.

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