Walking down Daniel Street in downtown Portsmouth, most locals will recognize The Clip Joint. The entirely woman-operated barber shop has been a staple of the community for 39 years. It was once on the brink of closure after its original owner, Debra Phillips, passed away. But the women, all independent booth-renters at the shop, banded together to save it, with their “den mother” Debbie Oliver at the helm.
Oliver insists she isn’t any more vital to the operation of The Clip Joint than her coworkers and is the owner only in the sense that she holds the lease. But the 11 women who work alongside her beg to differ.
“She always remembers everyone’s birthdays. She’s our cheerleader,” says one Clip Joint barber.
“She’s the most supportive business owner I’ve ever worked for,” says another.
“If it weren’t for her, we wouldn’t be here,” says yet another.
After being roommates in barber school, Oliver became Phillips’ fifth employee at The Clip Joint’s original State Street location, across from the Rockingham building. (The shop later moved to Pleasant Street before ultimately settling in its current spot.) After her passing, Phillips’ brother inherited and sold the business and the building on Pleasant Street. But the other barbers weren’t ready to let it go.
“We had to scramble and decide what was going to become of us and where we were going to go and how we were going to start all over,” Oliver says.
They had their eye on the Daniel Street location when, serendipitously, former occupant F.A. Gray offered to vacate it just for them.
“It was a match,” Oliver says. “It was perfect for us, and it was just meant to be.”
The very first person ever to have his hair cut at The Clip Joint is still a client today. A teenager at the time, he followed Phillips when she started the shop and never went anywhere else.
“You never know who’s going to walk through that door,” the barbers say, noting that both actor Jason Bateman and UCLA Bruins football coach Chip Kelly have gotten haircuts there. Kelly, a New Hampshire native, is a regular. “We like to joke that we’re kind of like a rendition of ‘Cheers.’ Once you come in here, everyone knows your name and you know everyone’s name. We really have a bunch of nice guys who come in here.”
The barbers believe that the sense of community in Portsmouth has made the familial environment of The Clip Joint what it is, offering a space for people of all generations to convene and chat while also getting a haircut.
“Eight years old to 80, lobstermen, high-profile businesspeople, and everything in between,” they say. “We’re lucky the space is so big because it allows people to interact with each other, which doesn’t happen that often anymore.”
The simple decor of The Clip Joint offers a nod to the good old days, embodying a cozy comfort that is rarely seen in modern-day barber shops and salons.
“We all honor the idea of the days gone by of the old barbershop, where everyone gathered, from young to old,” Oliver says. “That is why we cherish our ’50s barber chairs, cabinets, and memorabilia. It gives us the aura of a step back in time. (It’s) the reason we only accept cash, too.”
Though the shop is known for being owned and operated by women, they aren’t opposed to the idea of a man renting a booth at The Clip Joint. While the ladies don’t actively pursue or prevent male booth renters, it has to be the right fit, and that’s something they have yet to find.
“I worked at a lot of different salons and barber shops, but I’ll tell you what, I’ve never worked at (any other) place where everybody is talented and does a good job. Seriously, these women rock,” says Karen Peircey, who’s worked at the salon since returning to the area four years ago.
“This is family,” Oliver adds. “This is our family.”
To see other installments of Open Doors, click here.