For more than 50 years, Cel Pelayo of Merced has been cutting hair at a barber shop on the Merced Mall. The shop has been open seven days a week for much of that time, and Pelayo is no stranger to long hours.
Still Pelayo, 77, has no regrets about following a tonsorial career and intends to keep going for quite a while but he’s not sure how long. Standing on his feet for long periods of time is proving difficult.
“I have no regrets. This has been good to me, the way to go,” Pelayo says. “Some of my clients have been here since I started. Some are dying or moving away,” he says.
The Merced Mall Barbershop opened Nov. 3, 1971 and has been operating continuously since then.
Pelayo works with his grandson Shawn Vargas, 32, of Merced in the Merced Mall Barber Shop near where Sears and the food court used to be.
Vargas started with his grandpa when he was 18 years old. For almost 10 years he operated a barber shop in Atwater until the COVID-19 pandemic shut it down.
“I started when I was 14. It’s pretty cool working with your grandpa at the mall. It’s awesome; he has lots of stories to tell and many generations have come here. He has worked really hard and only took off Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter,” Vargas says.
For part of that time, the late actor Paul Newman was a part-owner of the Merced Mall and Pelayo remembers meeting him. Sometimes Newman would bring Hollywood to the mall and that meant seeing costumed characters from the “Planet of the Apes” movies and other Disney characters.
Pelayo took a roundabout way to get into barbering.
Born in Mexico, Pelayo came to the United States when he was 12 years old and grew up in Winton. He attended Atwater High School but did not graduate from there, finishing his GED degree later while in the U.S. Army.
Pelayo was drafted into the Army and sent to Ft. Bragg, N.C. Then he was assigned to the Jump School at Ft. Benning, Ga. He served in the 18th Airborne Corps artillery division in Ft. Bragg for two years.
After that he went to the U.S. Navy and served on the USS Enterprise. He was the ship’s serviceman third class and a bowswain’s mate, working on the bridge of the massive Navy ship.
Ultimately Pelayo was declared 100 percent disabled from the frequent explosions he heard on the Enterprise and suffered PTSD from war exposure in Vietnam. He belongs to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Vietnam Veterans of America and the American Legion.
“A friend of mine was a barber on the ship and they needed an extra barber. I didn’t know how to cut hair but learned in four to five months,” Pelayo says.
Back home, Pelayo went to Fresno’s Mohler Barber College in December 1959 and finished that in 9 months. He then started working for the Kingsmen Beauty Shop and then went to a barber shop on Bob Hart Square in Merced. He worked with the shop’s original owner, John Lopez, until Lopez joined his wife on the adjoining beauty shop. Soon thereafter, Pelayo took over the barber shop.
There were days when he started work at 9 a.m. and didn’t get home until 9:30 p.m. He estimates he has done 10 to 15 haircuts a day but has no idea how many that would total over five decades.
How have hairstyles evolved over the years?
Decades ago, Merced High School students wanted the school’s Bear designs “grafted” onto their heads. A customer who worked at the nearby Isenberg Motors Volkswagen dealership wanted the VW logo design on his head. He did that unique design free-hand — only one time, he adds.
Tapers, now called fades, have been popular at times over the years. Many of his customers were stationed in the Air Force at Castle AFB.
For a while many youngsters wanted a “John John” haircut named after President John F. Kennedy’s son.
Then there was the “hippie” era when haircuts took second fiddle to long, uncut hair.
Pelayo was divorced in the 1980s. He has four daughters, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
His daughters include Annette Rodriguez of Winton, Elizabeth Guillen of Madera, Arlene Vargas of Merced and Sydney Pelayo of Madera.
When he is not cutting hair, Pelayo likes building sheds and working with wood.
He says he is still using the same kind of haircutting tools such as razors, scissors, clippers and hair dryers. He has no idea how many clippers and other tools he has replaced as they wore out.
Doane Yawger of Merced is a semi-retired newspaper reporter and editor.