A barber to generations of Alhambrans dies
Paul Merchain, a lifelong Alhambra resident, Army veteran, and barber for more than 50 years, passed away on July 1 at the age of 77 after suffering from cardiac arrest.
Merchain was born on June 21, 1936 and grew up in Alhambra. As a teenager, he learned how to cut hair at the family business, Merchain’s Haircutting on Valley and Atlantic boulevards. He and his brother Ray went on to co-own the shop, which eventually relocated to Main and Curtis streets, for 30 years. When his brother Ray passed away in December 2011, he sold the business to Irene and Paul Dominguez who renamed it Main Street Barbers.
"I worked with Paul for 20 years, side by side, he was like a brother to me,” said Irene Dominguez. “Now that Ray and Paul had passed away...we're just going to keep all the memories going.”
The barbershop closed for a day to attend Merchain’s memorial service but continues to serve regular and new customers. Mario Barrera, Dominguez’s son and mentee to Merchain, has even moved over to the old-fashioned barber chair where Merchain used to cut people’s hair.
"The simple fact is he's missed dearly, he's a great mentor and a great barbershop buddy,” Barrera said. “His presence not being here is hard for us.”
Alhambra Source visited Main Street Barbers in November, 2012.
While the barbers were busy prepping for my first cut, I asked a man the regulars know as “Big Mike” if he was getting a haircut.
“I’ve already been here twice this week,” Big Mike said. “I’m just here to read the newspaper.”
Big Mike is one of many regular customers who visit Alhambra's Main Street Barbers for more than just a fresh 'do. For more than 50 years, the shop — formerly Merchain’s Haircutting — has been offering traditional men’s barbershop services, including warm towel service after a cut and an old-fashioned razor blade shave. Last year, long-time employee Irene Dominguez took over ownership, and she has been making some changes to modernize the barber shop while continuing to serve several generations of Alhambra residents.
Among the most significant changes was the name. As the new owner, Dominguez wanted to preserve the traditional vibe of the shop while making it her own. “We knew it was going to be different, but we also have four generations of loyal customers who come anyway," Dominguez said while showing me around the shop. "So it didn’t matter if we changed our name or not."
Indeed, on a recent visit regulars were either waiting for a haircut or coming inside the barbershop on Main Street and Curtis Avenue just to say hello to the employees and exchange hugs like long-time friends.
Former owner Paul Merchain maintains a chair in the corner, around which pictures and memorabilia from his service in the Korean and Vietnam wars hang on the walls. Now in his 70s, Paul still cuts hair at the shop about twice a week.
As a teenager, Paul shined shoes before learning how to cut hair at his brother Ray's barbershop. The Merchain brothers eventually ran the business together until Ray passed away in December 2011. Paul sold the barbershop to Dominguez, a hairstylist raised in East LA who has been working with the Merchains for 19 years.
In addition to changing the name, Dominguez has also made an effort to reach out to new customers through social media. Stylist Andrea Hoffman created a profile for the barbershop on the popular customer-driven website Yelp, where users create reviews and rate local business. The shop has a perfect five-star rating.
“We haven’t advertised our barbershop for 26 years until now,” Hoffman said. “Even on a slow day, at least one or two people come by and say that they found out about us on Yelp.”
While new customers are discovering the old shop, regulars like Big Mike like to hang out there even on days they don't need a haircut. Big Mike compared the shop to a certain bar where everybody knows your name: “This place is just like Cheers.”
Main Street Barbers is located at 1336 W Main St, Alhambra, CA 91801.