A barber shop is generally the best place to go for a beard trim, which is how I came to know Doug Dreher and the 11th Street staple where he spent most of the last two decades.
I was spending a sunny Saturday afternoon in the Heights, and my better half wanted me to clean up the overgrown bush that was hiding my face. So we made a stop at Doug’s Barber Shop, which caught my attention because of its favorable Google reviews, no frills appearance and historic place in the neighborhood.
The shop, which opened in 1929 at 219 E. 11th St., spoke to me as soon as I walked in. The walls were covered with an eclectic mix of photos, paintings, posters, newspaper clippings and images of some of my favorite Houston sports stars.
I soaked it all up and sat with anticipation while waiting for a seat to open. After 20 minutes or so, Doug spoke to me with a soft, friendly voice and invited me to sit in his chair.
A few minutes later, it became apparent that the barber shop’s clean-shaven namesake did not have much experience trimming beards. Doug made a couple cautious snips and sheepishly admitted as much, and then he made up for it.
He asked if I had clippers at home and then gave me two sets of clipper guards, brand new, that he had stashed in a nearby closet. Doug also handed me a magnetic calendar for the refrigerator and some sort of commemorative brick he had gotten from a building that was torn down.
I don’t remember the words that were inscribed on the orange-colored brick, but I’ll never forget my first encounter with Doug’s Barber Shop and my only meeting with the man who made it a second home for himself and countless other Heights-area residents over the years.
Two of the men who worked with Doug, who died Sept. 9 at age 68, said he liked to collect things and enjoyed sharing his findings with others. He had a brick collection, arrowhead collection, vinyl record collection and more than 2,000 pieces of McCoy Pottery.
Doug also liked to make new friends at the barber shop, which he treated as much like a cool place to hang out as he did a place of business. According to Jeff Armstrong, who bought the shop from Doug in 2014 and kept him on as a fellow barber, his longtime friend was a music lover who at one point played in a band and hosted late-night jam sessions at the barber shop.
“He always said he wasn’t (good at cutting hair),” Armstrong said. “He said he was better at talking.”
Becoming a barber and barber shop owner – Doug bought the business in 2001 from Don Willis, who continues to cut hair there – happened later in his life. Armstrong said Doug grew up in Coshocton, Ohio, and came to Houston while working for Amoco as a geologist.
Doug lived in a duplex on Michaux Street and started coming to the barber shop as a customer, then asked Willis if he was interested in selling it. Willis was open to the idea because he needed money for a new car and, according to Armstrong, Doug went to the bank that day and returned with cash.
The transaction wasn’t exactly immediate, though, because Doug had yet to go to barber school.
He eventually learned the trade and settled in as the shop’s owner, and his colleagues say Doug was the driving force behind all the decorations on the wall and the shop’s laid-back, welcoming atmosphere. Among the ornaments are photos commemorating the shop’s claim to fame – a scene in the 1998 Wes Anderson film “Rushmore” was filmed there – as well as a picture of Doug with Houston rapper Paul Wall, a former customer.
There also are photos of Doug from his high school days in Ohio, of him singing into a microphone while performing on stage, and of him portraying a clean-cut, slicked-back barber in a photo shoot for a magazine.
“This barber shop, it’s just like his home,” said Leonard Morgan, who worked alongside Doug for most of his tenure there. “You walk into this barber shop, you see Doug.”
Doug had another, more personal brush with celebrity. The daughter of his longtime partner, Dan Smith, who died in 2010, is Enron whistleblower Sherron Watkins.
According to Armstrong and Morgan, Doug treated everyone like they were important and had a trusting soul as well as a generous heart. Armstrong said Doug often helped the homeless, even letting them live with him, and was a caretaker for the landlord he had when he moved into his duplex.
Armstrong and Morgan, who both were hired by Doug, said they had a similar interview experience. Doug asked them to give him a haircut on the spot and, when they passed the test, he gave them a key and asked them to run the shop while he went out of town for several days.
“Doug would do anything for anybody,” Morgan said. “It didn’t matter who it was or what they were. Even if they did him wrong, he would still come back and help them. I’ve never seen anybody like him.”
Even if Doug did someone else wrong, maybe by giving them a bad beard trim, they still might have considered him a likable guy. And he still might have made a memorable impression.
That was the case for me, anyway. I imagine lots of other people who walked into Doug’s Barber Shop during the last 20 years left feeling much the same way.