By Brandi Makuski
For the first time in a career spanning more than 40 years, Norm Barber is considering retirement.
“I’m 73 years old, I think it’s about time,” said Barber, owner of Barber’s Shoppe, 2400 Church Street. “But it hasn’t been easy; we put the store up for sale about six months ago, and there’s not a day that goes by where people don’t walk in here and say, ‘You can’t go out of business.'”
Barber said he was working as an engineer for Marathon Electric when, sometime in the early 1970s, his career hit a wall.
“I got promoted like five times in a row in a three-year period,” he said. “I got let go because I had promoted myself out of a job. I told myself I’d never let that happen again.”
During his search for a new career, Barber said he noticed the “real lack” of specialized service at larger chain stores which had begun to set up shop in the area. Barber already knew a lot about vacuums and sewing machines, having cut his teeth under his upholsterer father’s tutelage, and decided to open his own shop in 1972. In 1979, he became friends with Norm Merkel, who operated what was then the area’s only Singer dealership.
“After [Merkel] had his heart attack, he asked me if I wanted to buy him out, so I did,” Barber said. “But he would keep working for me, as he had time, for another 26 years. He loved it because he didn’t have to answer the phone or deal with customers, and he did that up until he was 86 years old.”
With Merkel’s customer base now added to his own, Barber moved into his newly-constructed space in 1983, and the street presence has only helped the business grow.
Since then, Barber’s Shoppe has taken in about 2,000 sewing machines for donation to the Wisconsin/Nicaragua Partnership, and has served an estimated 18,000 customers.
“I don’t know how many businesses have been in town longer than us; not very many. I’ve pretty much outlived all of them,” Barber said.
“We’ve got 244 different [vacuum] bags,” Barber added, pointing to the walls lined with bags, belts and other vacuum accessories. “It’s a niche that no big business will ever go after. They’re not going to carry all these parts. They only carry what [sells] fast.”
Barber also pointed to a 1898 stick vacuum- he doesn’t recall the manufacturer’s name- the oldest model he’s ever tried to fix.
“All vacuum cleaners break, doesn’t matter which one you buy; it’s a matter of finding the parts,” he said, adding his customers come from all over the country. “Once you have a customer, you really have them for life. As long as we can find the part for it, we can probably fix it.”
The building and everything business related- parts, tools and inventory- is not all that’s up for sale. Barber said he intends to include two months of training for whomever eventually buys the business, because they’ll need the support.
Barber also spent some time on the city council, representing the city’s 10th district from 2004 to 2007, but says he doesn’t plan on coming back to public service.
“My goal is to sell the business to someone willing to hire me part-time,” Barber said. “I wanted a business where I did not have to retire at 65…that was one of my goals. I’m pretty much go, go, go.”
To see Barber’s listing for the business, click here.