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In Character with Darlene Robinett

A conversation with an interesting Portlander
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Darlene Robinett  may look no nonsense at first, but most days there is plenty of nonsense inside her "7 Bucks A Wack" barber shop, some of it provided by shop dog Elvis sniffing around at customers' feet.

There's no mistaking Darlene Robinett's price, purpose or intent. The large white sign outside her Kenton barbershop reads, '7 Bucks A Wack.' So do the bright red letters on the shop's plate glass window.

For 16 years, Portlanders looking for a bargain and a laugh (and a chance to pet her shop dog, Elvis) have been paying $7 for Robinett's haircuts, first at her Southeast Portland shop and now in North Portland. The busy shop is a testament to Robinett's personal economic theory, namely, when you've got a good name, you have to ignore inflation.

Portland Tribune: How did you come up with '7 Bucks A Wack?'

Darlene Robinett: When I bought my first shop, it was called 'Bob's Haircuts.' Well, I'm not Bob. I worked in a lot of different barbershops in Seattle. Business was slowing down, and I told my boss at the time, 'I really think you should lower your price.' She was getting $13 a haircut, and I said, 'How about lowering the price to seven dollars?'

Tribune: But you opened in Portland in 1995. Inflation being what it is, shouldn't you have moved seven dollars up a few times since then?

Robinett: I tried it once. I left seniors at seven and raised the price to nine. You'd be amazed how many customers I lost. They went right around the corner to a beauty school.

Tribune: Best tip after a haircut?

Robinett: I think it was $20. The guy hadn't been cleaned up for a long time, and he was ecstatic about his haircut and beard trim.

One guy who was waiting for a haircut went in to Sassy's and won $500 on the poker machine, and he didn't even tip a dime.

Another guy went next door, gambled, and by the time he came back here he barely had enough money for a haircut. And he didn't tip me, either. I said, 'Next time, you get your haircut first and then go next door and gamble.'

Tribune: Unusual customers?

Robinett: I think it's stupid with all the advertising out there when they come in and say, 'How much is a haircut?'

A guy came to my door and he had just been shot with mace in the face by a policeman. He said, 'Can you clean up my face?' And I said, 'No, I really can't, but you can use my facilities, washcloths and soap.' Next thing you know we're cutting his hair, washing his hair, trimming his beard on the house.

Tribune: On the house?

Robinett: He said, 'When I get a job I'll come back and I'll make it right.' Well, I've never seen him again.

I had another guy come in one time with really long hair, but it was all dreadlocked and you could tell he'd been living under a bridge. He wanted it left long and all the icky dreadlocks out because he had a job starting right away.

My granddaughter happened to be with me that day, and I didn't have a customer for five hours, so my granddaughter took one side, I took the other side, and we worked with that hair for five hours. And we even handed him the comb once in a while and said, 'Our arms are tired.'

Tribune: Seven bucks a wack? Or whack?

Robinett: The poor guy only had $13, and that wasn't a haircut.

Tribune: What was it?

Robinett: You'd call it a transformation. He gave me the money he had and said, 'I'll be back next week to make it right.' He came back and gave me another $17.

Tribune: I've heard that sometimes Elvis gets fresh with customers' legs. True?

Robinett: No. Elvis is still a virgin. Customers bring their little dogs in to meet Elvis, (but) he just doesn't like anybody coming into his territory.

There was one little boy who was skittish about dogs, so I just took him outside and tied him to the gate.

Tribune: Elvis or the boy?

Robinett: The dog.

But I thought I was going to go to jail one day. A lady brought in her little boy, and it was just before Halloween. She'd bought him a little Halloween costume; she was bribing him so we would get a haircut. She even had him bring it in, get out the costume and put it on because he was having such a fit.

It ended up that kid continued to be a real pip, and his mother got so mad that she took his head between her legs and said, 'I don't care what he does, I'm going to hold him and you're going to do it.'

We did it, but if a policeman had walked in we probably would have both gone to jail.