AUSTIN (KXAN) — Just feet away from the University of Texas sits one of the oldest barbershops in Austin. Since 1964, the Wooten Barbershop has provided affordable haircuts and community to its clientele on The Drag, a strip of businesses facing campus on Guadalupe Street.
“We are a part of UT basically,” said Wooten Barbershop manager James Nelson. “So it’s a community, and we have clients that are second and third generation.”
University students and faculty, Austin locals and celebrities alike have frequented the shop, sitting in the same burnt-orange leather chairs for the past 58 years. While the surrounding area has changed drastically over time, the barbershop has kept its same traditional look and feel.
“There’s a great atmosphere, and I enjoy going there and talking to Don,” said customer Nicholas Kremer. “Wherever he’s at, I’m gonna go get a haircut.”
Kremer graduated in 2005, but he has continued to make the drive from San Antonio because of the special relationship he has with his barber, Don Stafford. But Kremer, like many of the Wooten Barbershop’s customers, isn’t sure where he’ll get his next haircut, because the shop won’t be open in this location much longer.
In 2018, student housing developer American Campus purchased the block of properties at the intersection of 21st and Guadalupe Streets, including the Goodall Wooten Dormitory where the Wooten Barbershop sits. Students were given only weeks to move out and find new housing, but the barbershop retained its lease.
Over the last three years the properties have remained untouched, but this month the four barbers who have kept the shop alive for the past 20 plus years were told they needed to be out by June 15.
“It’s a part of you,” Nelson said about the shop. “It’s a part of you that probably will never be the same.”
The barbershop’s departure is part of a larger trend in older businesses on The Drag being unable to keep up with rising rents and new construction. In the last 10 years, the value of the property where the shop sits rose from $3 million to $7 million, according to the Travis County Central Appraisal District.
“The grandkids of the originals weren’t as interested in it and saw a big golden parachute or payoff and sold out for x million dollars,” Nelson said about the family that had owned the properties since they were built.
We reached out to the previous owners to ask about the sale. A family member we reached declined to comment for this story.
Now, the shop faces a tough real estate market for small businesses.
“We’re in limbo right now, and it’s imminent,” Nelson said. “Everything is very, very pricey, and if it cost too much to operate, we can’t be in business.”
The shop also risks losing its student clientele. Stafford said his favorite part of his job is building relationships with students and watching them grow to graduation and beyond.
“You help them through some of their problems, because you’ve already been through that or relationship advice or just how to be a better person,” Stafford said. “But you don’t get that from a fast chain barbershop.”
Former UT student James Boswell also makes the drive to Austin from San Antonio to visit the Wooten Barbershop. He said the history and impact of the shop drew him there, as well as his relationship with barber Doug Fransen.
“The most important thing is that the spirit of the place survives that and that they survive that, because it’s a great barbershop,” Boswell said. “They’ve been serving a lot of people for a long time.”
American Campus sent us a statement saying the block will be transformed into student housing with ground-floor retail. But the company said they do not have any definitive redevelopment plans at the time and “are currently working with the remaining retail tenants in the building to extend their leases.”
Only three tenants remain, however, two of which have been told they have to move out this summer, Alante Salon and the Wooten Barbershop. Four of the properties on the block lie vacant. That includes the building that’s home to the well-known “Hi, How Are You?” mural.
“We can confirm that we are still committed to preserving the iconic ‘Jeremiah the Innocent’ mural by Daniel Johnston in partnership with the Austin Creative Alliance,” said American Campus Vice President of Development Chuck Carroll.
In 2018, American Campus partnered with the Hi, How Are You Project, a nonprofit inspired by the mural’s artist, dedicated to reducing the stigma surrounding mental health. The restaurant where the mural is painted, Thai, How are You? closed in 2020.
“The mural is beloved by fans and supporters of the nonprofit, making it a meaningful part of ‘The Drag,’” said Carroll.
Stafford feels American Campus representatives have forgotten their shop is also meaningful to The Drag. He said the company has been hard to get in touch with and gone back and forth on its promises.
“It’s ridiculous that people really want to save the frog, but they’re not interested in saving the barbershop that’s been here since 1964,” Stafford said. “I don’t know how that serves the community, but I certainly know how we do.”
American Campus Communities itself is being bought by Blackstone, an investment management firm based in New York, for nearly $13 billion, CNBC reported.
Nelson and Stafford said they have a verbal agreement to return once the new property is built, but nothing is confirmed, and they’re uncertain if they’ll be able to afford it.
“When they have us come back, what’s rent going to be in three years from now?” Stafford said. “We will probably have to charge 70 to 100 and something dollars per haircut, just to pay the rent.”
Kremer knows he’ll always be able to get his hair cut from Stafford, whether at his house or another shop, but feels it’s a loss for the University of Texas community.
“It’s so sad, because The Drag has changed so much,” Kremer said. “That’s a piece of really UT campus that’s going away.”
While the shop may no longer have a presence on The Drag, the barbers are hopeful the change will present new opportunities. They’re currently exploring operating out of a trailer or partnering with the neighboring salon that also has to relocate, Alante Salon.
“Change happens and is kind of needed,” Nelson said. “We’re growing.”
The Wooten Barbershop said they will be updating their website to let customers know when and where they’re operating following June 15. Wherever they go, it’s certain loyal customers like Boswell will be sure to follow.
“Doug’s already got a promise to give my first child his hair cut,” Boswell said. “So whenever that happens, he’s already got that bookmarked.”