A Cut Above: Five Decades (And Counting) Behind the Chair
By Art Bukowski | Dec. 2, 2023
The most remarkable thing about Roger Argue isn’t that he’s been cutting hair since gas was 33 cents a gallon and South Airport Road was a lazy two-lane route on the outskirts of town.
Sure, he’s cut tens of thousands of heads of hair since starting at Robertson’s Hair Center in Traverse City’s historic Masonic Building in 1967, purchasing the 120-year-old operation a few years later and running it ever since. And while it’s been a long and admirable run, it’s certainly not unique in the working world.
What’s remarkable is that even at age 80, ask him about retiring and he brushes off the idea easier than a smattering of hair clippings on a shoulder. It’s simply not on the radar. He’ll tell you he enjoys the job too much, and he’s not bluffing. Argue is relentlessly upbeat as he discusses his profession, in which he gets to make people look and feel their best.
“I think about the little kids. They get a buzz cut, and they’ll be walking out just rubbing their heads and smiling, they’re just so happy. What could you do for a child to make them any happier for a few bucks?” he says. “It’s always been a real treat to see people with that much joy.”
Argue is at home in his Union Street barbershop, which looks and sounds like a barbershop you might create out of whole cloth in your mind’s eye. The sturdy, wrought chairs, the magazine stand with dog-eared sports magazines, the cheerful banter and playful barbs buzzing about the room like so many happy honeybees.
“I feel really fortunate,” Argue says. “My wife asks if I ever wish I had done something else, and I tell her never once. And I feel pretty lucky about that. I’ve never hated going to work, and I don’t think most people can say that.”
Argue was born and raised in Frankfort and returned to the area after going to barber school near Detroit in the mid-1960s. He raised three girls in Traverse City, watching it grow from a relative backwater to a bustling vacation hub that can’t seem to stay off nationwide top-10 lists. In that time, he’s gotten to know, well, pretty much everyone.
“Sometimes I’ll get on an airplane going out of town, and people will think I’m traveling with a group because I seem to know everybody on the plane,” he says with his trademark rapid chuckle. “It’s a pretty neat thing.”
And the passing years have allowed him to connect with local families in a way few people will ever experience.
“I’ve got guys in here that are now in their 60s, and I cut their grandpa’s hair, their dad’s hair, and now their sons and grandsons,” he says. “Five generations.”
With tens of thousands of heads come countless hours of conversation and small talk. Doctors, lawyers, judges, salesmen, bartenders, mechanics, foreign exchange students – you never know who’s going to walk through the door. He feels like he has his fingers on the pulse.
“I’ve talked with a lot of people who have a lot of really good ideas and a lot of good information,” Argue says. “You hear about what’s happening, all the restaurants, good places to eat, all the different opinions on things all over the county, where people like to go for vacations – it’s all really handy.”
He’s managed to avoid anyone super famous in his years behind the chair, but he’s had his fair share of what one might call regional celebrities.
“Just the other day, (retired Detroit Red Wing) Nick Lidstrom just casually came by casually and wanted to know if he could get a haircut,” Argue says. “And Gordie Howe used to come in quite a bit.”
Argue also treasures the friendships he’s made with colleagues over the years, including Joe Schleicher, who’s been there almost as long as he has.
“He’s hard to keep up with – he’s like the Energizer Bunny,” Schleicher says of Argue.
Like many people who have been here for years, Argue has some unease about the changes he’s seen in Traverse City. He’s worried the city is getting so busy that it’s losing the very reasons it’s always been appealing to locals and visitors alike, and the increased population – and popularity – is creating a variety of problems that simply didn’t exist a few decades ago.
“Well for instance, we need a new barber. You talk to someone from downstate, and they say, ‘Well, how much is a place to rent there?’ And you have to tell them that they’re looking at probably 2,000 bucks for something decent, if you can even find someplace,” Argue says. “They always said it should be one week’s income for housing, but there aren’t that many people making $100,000.”
Downtown has also changed mostly for the better, Argue says, but he has a few bones to pick.
“Parking is very, very rough down here,” he says. “We get complaints all the time. They have these meters and you get the app, and the app doesn’t work or the meter doesn’t work, and people get tickets and are very frustrated. It discourages people from coming downtown.”
But it’s all still mostly great, and he looks forward to many more years in the chair. How many, you ask?
“I always tell the story about that guy in Interlochen who was cutting hair until he was 102,” Argue says. “So I guess I’ve got another 20 some years to go.”Comment