Restaurants and large retailers have come and gone on National City’s Highland Avenue over the decades. Art deco-style storefronts now sport more neutral palettes.
But some things never change.
“We’re still that little, yellow barbershop on the corner. It’s a local landmark,” said Raland Camara, who runs Highland Barber Shop on Highland Avenue near East 18th Street.
The family-owned shop is the oldest running haircut establishment in the South County city and it’s celebrating its 50th anniversary, he said.
Camara’s late father Antonio opened the shop and often had his four sons sweeping the floors or helping with other daily operations. The father died in 2018, giving way to his wife and Camara to run the business. In 2021, the mother died.
“That barbershop helped put me and my other three brothers all through college,” said Camara, who is also a senior engineer at Northrop Grumman.
While the neighborhood has changed over time, the small establishment surrounded by auto shops has kept several elements intact since it opened in 1972.
Customers can still find the 1960’s brown leather Theo A. Kochs barber chairs Antonio once used. There are framed black and white portraits of the Camara family and a colorful painting of the barbershop done by one of the father’s customers from the 1970s.
The prices for a regular haircut haven’t changed dramatically and it’s a big component as to why Highland Barber Shop has maintained a loyal and abundant clientele, said Camara. In 1972, prices were $3. Today, they are $12.
“My father had a pretty simple business model: he just wanted to provide a good haircut at a great price. I don’t think that ever goes out of style. It’s really that business model that’s kind of carried us through today,” said Camara.
Though not an easy feat, Highland Barber Shop weathered pandemic-related lockdowns while many other establishments closed for good under ever-changing regulations. One of the biggest challenges was staffing, said Camara, because as the industry shut down, employees had to find other jobs to sustain themselves.
“We’ve been hiring all through COVID,” he said. “As a matter of fact, we’re still hiring. We have far more customers than we have barbers.”
Among the hires in 2020 was barber and stylist Socorro Gastelum.
“I’ve been here two years,” she said. “When I started working here during COVID it wasn’t easy to bring customers again. But after two or three weeks (since working here) customers that have been coming for a long time started coming back and they told other people.”
Gastelum said she soon realized that customers from as far north in Oceanside would make the drive for a haircut.
“I have a customer who’s been coming for 40 years and brings his son and grandson now,” she said. “You see a lot of that. It’s a generation thing and they’re happy we’re still here working in this place.”
Just in time to welcome customers back, Camara said he took it upon himself to give the shop a facelift while still maintaining its character.
“I basically painted the shop inside and out and gave it a little upgrade,” he said. “The outside of our shop was yellow and we repainted it the same color. Would I have originally painted this yellow? Probably not, but it’s just so much a part of people’s lives as the little yellow barbershop.”
Highland Barber Shop recently held a 50th anniversary party where they offered customers $3 haircuts, raffle games and hair supplies.