Bill Stanner reflects on 48 years cutting hair on Elkhart’s Gateway Mile
Sometimes a wrong turn can lead you to the right place. That’s what happened to Bill Stanner more than 50 years ago.
He was working at a small barber shop in South Bend when he had a disagreement with the owner, and the older man let him go. On his way back home to LaGrange, Bill drove through Elkhart and accidentally got in the wrong lane. He was supposed to go straight, but had to turn left by Easy Shopping Place. While he was turning around, he happened to see a barber shop right next to Volcano Pizza that had a sign in the window: "HELP WANTED."
"I stopped and 45 minutes later, I was working there," Bill said. "In 55 years of doing hair, I’ve only been out of work 45 minutes."
Bill Stanner stands with his wife Nancy Stanner behind the counter at their downtown Elkhart shop Mane Event Hair Design. Photo by Jason Bryant.
Thanks to that serendipitous mistake, Bill spent several decades cutting hair in Elkhart and investing in the Gateway Mile as a shop owner.
Although Bill retired a few years ago – it was a tough but necessary decision because of arthritis and other health problems – he is still the proud owner of Mane Event Hair Design, which opened its doors at 211 N Main St. 30 years ago.
“I would have never retired if I had that choice,” he said. “I’ve always said that I don’t like cutting hair, I love it. I don’t understand when someone comes to work and gripes all day long about hating their job. I’ve loved every minute of it.”
THE BEGINNING Bill’s passion for cutting hair started with his father.
“He used to cut everyone’s hair in the neighborhood, but he wasn’t a barber,” he said. “He did a lot of things to save money then. He always wanted to be a barber, but with four children, he just couldn’t do it.”
When Bill was a young adult, he ran into a friend who had attended barber college. He was home for a weekend and he talked Bill into going to barber school.
“I had a brand new car that I sold in order to go, and I loved it from the very first day,” he said.
Bill planned to earn a double degree – one from barber college and one from beauty college, so he could work on both men’s and women’s hair – but he was drafted into military service after only completing his barber training.
“I spent two years in Germany and cut hair,” he said. “Someone asked if there were any barbers on board the ship going over, and I thought it was better to do that than sit on a cold deck in the winter time.”
When Bill returned from overseas in 1964, the Beatles were just becoming popular in the U.S.
"All of a sudden, every young person in the country wanted to let their hair grow long," Bill said. "Some of them would come in for a haircut and they didn’t want to shampoo their hair. There was no styling there."
The barber industry shrunk in those years, partly because men were getting their hair cut less often and partly because some of the older barbers were not willing to learn how to style the newest trends.
"I went back and took a lot of classes to learn how to cut the longer hair. It was kind of tough for a while," Bill said, but he stuck with it.
Bill Stanner sits in a pedicure chair at his downtown Elkhart salon Mane Event Hair Design. Photo by Jason Bryant.
A CAREER IN HAIR Early in Bill’s career, he found a mentor in a man named Al Howard. Al owned 26 barber shops in Indiana, and Bill worked for him.
Al noticed that Bill was attending motivation classes and had brought a Dale Carnegie book to work with him.
“He noticed Bill was somebody who was willing to listen to him and who wanted to get ahead,” Bill’s wife, Nancy Stanner, said.
Al taught Bill about the stock market and about how to run a business.
“This guy was a very, very interesting guy,” Bill said. “He taught me a lot of things about how to treat people. He told me, ‘You’re in a business where you can touch people.’ Literally, I could put my hand on someone’s shoulder while talking to them, but I can also bond with them at the same time.”
In 1969, Al decided to sell the Tip Top Barber Shop he owned on South Main Street in Elkhart. He contacted Bill first, and Bill jumped at the opportunity.
An advertisement announcing the opening of Bill’s new Gaslight Barber Shop at 1725 South Main St. read: “For the man who cares…This shop has been completely remodeled and the latest innovations in barber equipment have been installed.”
At the time, barbers typically wore smocks.
“We changed that to shirts and ties. We were the first in town to be more professional,” Bill said. “We wanted to make men understand that how they look is really important, and that their hairstyle was important.”
Nancy said that when Bill started advertising the fact that he was trained in hairstyling and that he had gone to classes, some guys were too embarrassed to make an appointment.
“When we started styling men’s hair, we didn’t take appointments,” Bill said. “On Saturdays, we’d have as many as 15 to 18 guys waiting. But when you picked up a can of hairspray, three guys would get up and walk out. Or, if you used a hairdryer on somebody, two more guys would get up and leave. It wasn’t the ‘manly’ thing to do.”
Bill would bring men to his home to have their hair styled if they were too embarrassed about an appointment in the open shop. One guy wanted his hair cut on a private jet, and another customer called Bill to his office.
“Eventually, styling got to be a big thing,” Bill said. “You were a cool guy if you went someplace that styled hair.”
And the Gaslight became the cool place to be. There were 12 plastic waiting chairs in the salon, and there would be so many customers on a Saturday that some had to stand. Sometimes, once they got done with the hair cut, they would stay to watch “American Bandstand.”
That meant a lot of manual labor for the Stanners behind the scenes to make the Gaslight someplace where people wanted to spend their time. The family – Bill, Nancy and their daughter, Staci Anagnos – would spend their Sunday nights scrubbing and waxing the floors. In addition, Nancy worked on the books during the week.
In 1980, one of Bill’s customers was involved in bringing the Midway Motor Lodge to downtown Elkhart. He told Bill that it would be great to have a salon inside that hotel, and Bill decided to give it a go.
The Stanners kept the Gaslight on South Main and opened Mane Event Hair Design in the Motor Lodge. The new salon opened right after Bill had chosen to make his businesses unisex, accepting both men and women as customers and as employees. That proved difficult at the time.
“At the Gaslight, I had an inspector come in one time while I was cutting a lady’s hair as a short, layered cut and the girl next to me was cutting a guy’s hair,” Bill said. “The inspector said, ‘You can’t do that,’ and I had to spend quite a bit to separate and partition the space.”
After several years, the Stanners opted to downsize. “It was too difficult to keep hands-on with both of them,” Bill said. So, they sold the Gaslight and concentrated on the Mane Event.
In 1987, the Mane Event was moved from the Motor Lodge to its current location at 211 N. Main St. It was an exciting opportunity for the Stanners, because it gave them the chance to own their own building.
Nancy and Bill Stanner in their downtown Elkhart salon Mane Event Hair Design. Photo by Jason Bryant.
A LOVE FOR ELKHART
For 30 years now, that building at 211 N. Main St. has been Bill’s pride and joy.
When Bill was looking for locations for his salon, there were several locations he contemplated moving to — and not all of them were downtown. When it came time to make the final decision, it was downtown where he really wanted to stay.
Although he is retired, he returns to his salon a couple of times a week to make sure everything is going OK. He power washes the outside of the building, washes the windows and plants flowers. If city code would allow for it, he would also have a giant American flag waving in the sky.
“That’s part of his dedication to Main Street,” Staci said. “He keeps his property looking viable and cared for, and up on the times.”
Staci and her husband, Tony Anagnos, own several properties in downtown Elkhart, including 523 Tap & Grill. She said her families are proof that you can make a living downtown. She said their families are proof that there is success in downtown Elkhart.
“You can feel proud that you are bettering your community at the same time,” she said.
Bill wants others to know the joy of finding success in downtown Elkhart.
“I love Elkhart. I’ve never seen a city like Elkhart,” Bill said. “A lot of people take it for granted. They don’t really know the potential.”
He wants to see Main Street continue to grow and thrive. He only wishes that more people would remember to look north of Jackson Boulevard, where businesses like Mane Event sit. He said a lot of the attention and development ends at Jackson, leaving businesses like him out.
“I’m grateful because I’m one of the few people that love what I do,” Bill said. “My dad used to tell me, ‘I don’t care what you do in life, but do it better than anybody else.’”
Nancy added about her husband: “He won’t tell you this, but he’s done it better.”
Bill has never tried to calculate how many customers he saw over his 50-plus-year career as a barber in Elkhart, but he lets others attempt to figure it out: He would work from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday with no lunch break, seeing about 20 customers per day on average.
“I’ve been blessed with great stylists and wonderful customers,” Bill said. “There’s a sign above the door that says, ‘Through these doors walk the finest people in the world.’ That’s exactly how I felt about it. Still do.”