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The art of listening built his business and a rich Alaska life

  • Author: Charles Wohlforth
    | Opinion
  • Updated: November 21, 2017
  • Published November 20, 2017

Scott Theis, cutting Mark Renner’s hair, began working at the barber shop in The Mall at Sears in 1979. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Partway through our interview, I realized Scott Theis and I are in the same business. Listening.

As I explained that thought, his eyes locked on mine. He was concentrating, thinking of nothing other than what I was saying.

"A lot of people, when you're talking to them, they've already got the next thing they're going to say ready in their mind, and they're just waiting their turn," he said.

Theis is a barber. He's good at it, but he learned long ago that personality is more important than skill. His talent as a listener — and as a quick friend — has earned him a successful business.

Artist David Pettibone, whom I profiled a few weeks ago, mentioned a similar realization, that pictures coming from outside his head were more interesting than the ones inside. That's what I believe about writing, too.

Really listening means clearing out your mind to let another person's thoughts come in and live there for a bit. Letting those outside thoughts do their thing before you do your own. So often there's a pleasant surprise to be had. Or maybe not, but even if you hear nothing new, you reach another human being.

An older guy, whose grey curls had grown a bit ragged, sat in Theis' chair. They greeted each other by name. Theis didn't have to ask what kind of haircut he wanted.

These conversations aren't profound — or maybe they are. Aged, with kids grown, retirement in sight, thinking about the coming Alaska winter, the icy parking lots and dark.

Yes, Theis agreed, it gets dangerous.

But the clear, cold days in winter, the crisp light.

Yes, he agreed again, it can be so beautiful.

I asked Theis how he learned to listen. He talked about his father in Minnesota, a painting contractor so talkative that his mother wondered how he got anything done.

She raised eight kids, then went back to school to be a labor and delivery nurse. She was already an expert, he joked.

Theis was the third of eight, just ahead of twins.

"I just kind of blended into the background and ducked out of all the trouble," he said.

Scott Theis cuts Mark Renner’s hair at A Cut Above, a barbershop in the Sears mall. (Marc Lester / ADN)

After graduating from high school in 1975, he got a suitcase for Christmas and  left for Alaska. He bonded with the state on the Kodiak waterfront.

The crab boom was on, and skippers looking for crew would come into the bar and grill where Theis was washing dishes. He almost signed on a couple of times until he saw their boats.

A friend did take one of those jobs and had a boat sink under him in Shelikof Strait. The Coast Guard plucked him out of the water. He was still soaking wet when he walked into the bar and asked Theis to buy him a beer.

Instead of fishing, Theis went to vocational school to be a heavy-equipment operator. He chose a school in Montana because someone said in the Kodiak newspaper that the prettiest girls were there.

"That's how you make decisions when you're 20," he said.

But when he arrived, the equipment classes were full and a friend's girlfriend suggested he try classes in hair instead. They had 40 girls and only one guy.

Theis applied for his first job as a barber at A Cut Above, in the Sears mall, in 1979. The owner offered to make him a partner instead. He borrowed the money from his parents, paying it back in two years. When he did, they came to Alaska for a week of camping and fishing.

During that rare time alone with his parents, his dad died. A heart attack while making coffee one morning in a Fairbanks campground. The trip became one of Theis' most treasured memories.

He tells stories like these to customers in the chair. I met him when he cut my hair. He told me how proud he was of his sons, Dylan, an athlete who is coaching basketball in Australia, and Dustin, a premed student in Phoenix.

And he is proud of his wife, Lindy, an executive in an oil field services company. He loves breaking news to her about her industry. He hears everything in the barbershop.

He does her hair. She does his books.

With their boys grown, they dream of traveling the country by bicycle. Theis said 40 years in business—in another year—will be enough.

Scott Theis prepares to cut Mark Renner’s hair and talks to other customers.. (Marc Lester / ADN)

The shop has done well. He earned a degree to be a commercial pilot, but decided to stay his own boss, cutting hair and flying just for fun.

Hair grows in up and down economies. Theis said the hardest part of the business is finding qualified barbers who are good listeners.

"I started going to Great Clips getting a haircut, hoping to find an employee," he said. "And I got busted by a manager who said, 'I know what you're doing. Get out of here and don't come back.' It was embarrassing. I got 86'd from Great Clips. But I wanted to say, 'Pay your people decently and you won't have to worry about it.' "

Chains have big advantages in our economy. Theis and I sounded like old men, recalling the family businesses that thrived in Anchorage before the big box stores and national brands.

Theis' barbershop is one of the few old-fashioned survivors. He doesn't even have a TV. That would kill the conversation. His only compromise is baseball on the radio.

Nurturing conversations gave Theis a rich life, not just a career. Countless friends, a lot of knowledge, and a sense of service. He cut hair for three generations of some families. He traveled overseas with a friend he met in the barber chair. He followed another to a nursing home.

He learned how this worked when he was still in school, cutting an old man's hair.

"He started telling me how he had contemplated suicide," Theis said. "It really kind of threw me back, but I kept talking to him. I tried not to act surprised or alarmed, but I just let him talk, and I think that's what he needed. People just need to talk, and we just let them."

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