In 2010, the Renton Reporter covered the old-school Hilands Barber Shop. It described the spot as “a home and museum at the same time” with family photos and hair-cutting memorabilia. The article sits in a moving box in the shop, Dec. 27, and the boxes take up most of the near-empty space. The owners’ son pulls boxes pass the barber chairs, waiting area and into his truck.
“Nothing’s changed, except they’re kicking us out,” co-owner Helen Russell said. “We’re just eight years older.”
It’s been exactly a year since they were notified the Hilands Barber Shop would close. The lot is being cleared for a new mixed-use property with townhomes, apartments, retail space and daycare.
Required to vacate by last Saturday, it was one of the few businesses in the Greater Hi-Lands Shopping Center to use up every possible day left. The goodbye is bitter, but the customers are sweet, as the owners try to figure out what will happen next.
On Dec. 29, 2017, Russ and Helen received an email notice stating the lease was being terminated. While they suspected that much for a while, Helen said she still took problem with finding out over email her shop had to move out in October. They were able to receive an extension to the end of December.
Don Jacobson was getting his last haircut with Hilands Barber, he’d been going “since he still had hair.” Jacobson served as Valley Medical Commissioner, and worked on the Renton School Board, Chamber of Commerce Board and the Renton Technical College Board.
“Sure hate to see you go,” Jacobson said to Russ after the trim. “Everything ends I guess. I’m gonna miss ya.”
A lot of goodbyes like this were said throughout the week, as the barber shop had back-to-back customers each day leading up to their closure on Dec. 29. Different generations, old and young, of men who always had their haircuts at Hilands.
The shop opened in 1964, one of the oldest businesses in the Highlands. Current owners Leland “Russ” and Helen Russell bought it in 1987, while Helen was pregnant with their son.
“I was due in three weeks, and we had to (buy) it. And then you count on selling your business for your retirement,” she said. “Everything it costs us to buy it is all out the window now.”
Russ started working there in 1975 and Helen began in 1977, when they met. The story of their lives is intertwined with this place. Helen can list off all the different retailers that have changed around her in the Hi-Lands Shopping Center.
Helen was 19 when she started, and jokingly described herself as just a little girl.
Gordon Endicott also works there as a barber, and joined in 1980.
They had heard rumors of the shopping center closing for years, but management had denied it, Helen said. She said two years ago, three business sold to other people who only had the location for about a year before they were told they need to close.
Hilands Barber Shop could have done that, but Helen said she wouldn’t have been able to live with herself.
While Russell plans to retire, Helen said she’s unsure what’s next without this job. She said rent is too high in the Highlands to start over with a new location.
“At 60 I’m not gonna take out a loan and start a business,” Helen said. “That’s the hardship of that.”
She knows the city wants to revitalize, but thinks it hasn’t attempted to help the older, smaller businesses. Helen said she thinks retailers like herself are being priced out of the Highlands— places to move a small business get fewer.
In the city’s business plan for 2018-2023 it mentions the Sunset area of the Highlands as a place to be adding mixed-use developments to establish “neighborhood-scale living, working and entertainment nodes” to reduce transportation needs and help residents shop and work where they live. The 2009 Sunset Area Community Investment Strategy also said a consultant in 2005 suggested that housing in surrounding neighborhoods was essential before any commercial improvements.
Helen said it was a “slap in the face” to see new business in other areas greeted warmly and publicly by the city but she hasn’t seen anyone come up and say something to those booted out of the shopping center. Endicott also said he wished the city had helped them some way.
Endicott might take a chair at a different shop nearby, but he laments the closure of Hilands.
The three barbers talk about how the old-school barbershop is not just for a haircut, but a way to find out what’s happening in town, gossip and express opinions.
“That dies with this barbershop, you won’t have nearly as much fun as you have in here,” Endicott said. “There’s no subject that’s sacred.”
“And what is said in this barbershop, stays in this barbershop,” Helen added. “Nothing’s held back here.”
The last day was a flurry of final customers, flowers, gift cards, gifted alcohol and well-wishes for the employees of Hilands Barber Shop.
Becoming family with customers was the hardest part of saying goodbye, Helen and Russ both said.