Road Blog: Sidewalk Sharpener

Richard Johnson, itinerant scissors sharpener, tests a pair of just-honed scissors outside a beauty parlor on Chicago’s North Side, May 2012.

Late last Thursday morning, I went walking up Western Avenue from my sister’s place. Ultimate destination: the long-term-care/assisted-living facility (a.k.a. “nursing home”) where our dad landed after his most recent hospitalization for pneumonia. Secondary destination: Starbucks, for the coffee I hadn’t yet had.

On the way north, just across Touhy Avenue, I encountered the gentleman pictured above, sharpening scissors outside a beauty salon. I passed, went about 10 paces, thought “I don’t see that every day,” then doubled back.

His name is Richard Johnson. He was sharpening scissors for the salon workers engaged in the beauty trade. The open-air contraption he was using, he said, “was designed by a genius” — meaning himself. He’s an engineer by training and said that back in the ’60s he worked on ballistic missiles stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. His sharpening contraption consists of what looks like an emery belt and a polisher that he runs off an electrical outlet. The cord snaked across the sidewalk into the salon. It was his first time at this particular establishment.

“Mostly I work at pet groomers. They’re always dropping their scissors and clippers.”

“The clients aren’t as cooperative as here,” I said.

“Yes–they always blame the dogs.”

The most urgent task he was facing the morning I met him was reconditioning some “texturizing” scissors for a woman who already had a client in the chair. He worked on them, tested the sharpness on his arm hairs, then worked on them a little more. Then he brought them into the shop. Looking inside, I could see the beautician making a few preliminary snips. Then Richard came back out with the scissors.

“They let them get rusty and dull, and then they expect miracles,” he said.

Richard Johnson, former ballistic missile engineer and itinerant scissors sharpener, with a customer on the North Side of Chicago, May 2012.

3 Replies to “Road Blog: Sidewalk Sharpener”

  1. You don’t see many of these guys anymore. They were fairly common in NYC at one time along with guys who would travel about doing other jobs, window washers and such. But the knife sharpening guys still turn up around here. It’s a service that doesn’t seem to go obsolete.

  2. That is amazing. There used to be a sharpener guy who came a couple times a month to a package liquor store I used to go to. You could drop your knives off at night and pick them up the next night all sharpened. I took a few of my kitchen knives to him several times. Did a great job, too. But, they tore the place down, put a road through where it stood, and I never found the guy again.

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