Part real-world classroom, part morning coffee shop conversation and all full-service barbering, Benton's Armed Barbers are aiming to serve up more than just a quality shave and a haircut.
The duo of Ray Minor and John D. Sweet are looking to help resurrect an important service industry that once stood as the cornerstone of local communities.
Minor came by the idea honestly. For decades his grandfather served as one of Benton's barbers. So, when Minor retired from the Illinois State Police as a master sergeant, he wasn't willing to stop serving his community. He set his sights on recreating those experiences of his youth formed by spending time in his grandfather's shop and the important life lessons he learned there.
"When I was a boy, we used to go to grandfather's barbershop to get my hair cut. Even if I wasn't there long, I got to see men interacting with other men in a positive setting. Those experiences are, unfortunately, few and far between today. So, I wanted to recreate that opportunity," Minor said.
To that end, Minor enrolled in the Rend Lake College barber program, where he met kindred spirit and fellow Benton resident John D. Sweet.
Truth be told, it wasn't actually the first time the pair met.
Minor actually knew Sweet's parents, having gone to school together. In fact, Minor and Sweet's father were good friends growing up.
Sweet joked that when he was younger, he knew Minor as "Officer Minor" around the house.
The conversation to start the barbershop was a product of carpool rides while the pair were still in the RLC barber program.
"Basically, I was in the process of building this building. I knew my shop was going to be here," Minor said. "Sweet and I both live in Benton, so we developed a friendship. Then, we started trading rides, and the more we got to know one another, the more we realized that we meshed on a number of different levels. Our ideology and thoughts were very in line right down to what we thought about barbering and what barbering should be."
So, what should barbering be?
Both men strongly feel that the shop should be more than a place to just get a haircut.
"We are both focused on doing a great job and growing with the community," Sweet said. "Ray and I both believe that this is more than just a shop. This is a place for men to come and be men and communicate with men. We've lost that somewhere. You don't really see that place anymore for a man to go between home and work to interact with his fellow man that isn't a bar. The local barber shop used to be a place like that, and that's that atmosphere we are trying to cultivate."
Minor also lamented the disconnect between father figures and a younger generation, citing electronic communication as hampering a vital skillset needed for face-to-face conversation; skills like eye contact and a firm handshake.
Creating an atmosphere where a father and a son can both get their hair cut, or a younger man can come in to talk to and learn from his elders, was a vital building block of what the Armed Barbers are setting out to accomplish.
To facilitate that atmosphere, Minor and Sweet even installed their two chairs to allow for a father and son to face each other while they get their hair cut together while talking and sharing a moment with each other.
The response has been positive.
Armed Barbers had a soft opening Aug. 8 and the community support for what the pair has accomplished has only been growing.
"So far, it has been amazing how receptive everyone has been. They love it. People have been telling us they haven't seen something like this in a long time. Or, even our younger customers saying they've never had a service like this. I don't think we are doing anything more than would have been expected 50 years ago, but that personal touch at places is lacking now. So, people really notice when you make it about them and treat them like a customer should be treated," Minor said.