Editors’ note: Students in The Reporting Project’s Fall 2022 cohort visited towns across Licking County this semester to tell the stories of residents they meet along the way. Here are three stories from Newark, the county seat.
Folks come to Vaughn’s for haircuts and leave the timeless shop as friends
By Zoe Meyer and Milo Dao
On any given day, you might find a truck driver, farmer, coach, teacher, a student, a lawyer or even a common pleas court judge in the chairs at Vaughn’s Barber Shop, a block west of the Licking County Courthouse.
On some days, you might find all of them – especially on a Saturday morning, when the place is humming with electric razors, the latest gossip, and ESPN replays on wall-mounted TVs.
On this recent warm day after school let out, moms and dads sat on the bench where customers wait for the next available chair. The parents watched with smiles as barbers meticulously sculpted the hair of their young boys.
Vaughn’s has been a fixture in downtown Newark since 1937. It’s an old-school place in a century-old building where walk-ins wait on a long bench for the next open chair. They shoot the breeze with each other and the barbers, analyzing the last Newark High football game, the undefeated Buckeyes or the latest loss by the Browns.
The bench runs the entire length of a long wall across from the five barber chairs – all of which are filled on a Saturday morning. And that’s when the conversation really gets lively.
One long-running topic of conversation is the sewer replacement project that has had downtown streets around Vaughn’s torn up for several years. But even with the detours, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a relatively new barber shop just up the street, Vaughn’s remains a stalwart in downtown Newark.
Anthony Rivers, 41, has been taking it all in at Vaughn’s since he was 15 – first as a customer and now as a barber.
Rivers has worked at Vaughn’s for four years now and has found his home – a no-judgment zone where everyone is welcome, no matter your income, no matter your race, no matter what city or what part of town you’re from.
“We’ve got people from Granville, Johnstown, Heath – a lot of those places don’t have barber shops,” Rivers said. “Wherever I go, I see someone I know.”
Rivers said he has about 100 regular clients and at least 40 walk-ins a day.
The most rewarding part of his job, he said, is meeting so many different people.
“It’s pretty neat watching kids grow up,” he said. “The only downside is seeing kids go down a wrong path.”
Brandon Bovenkerk, 31, another barber at Vaughn’s, remembers when some younger clients called him, instead of their parents, for help after an evening of too much drinking.
Brandon began experimenting with cutting hair at 15 and has been a barber ever since. While stationed with the military in Afghanistan, he said, he cut the hair of other service members every Saturday and Sunday.
At Vaughn’s, he said, And they do more than cut hair.
“We are therapists,” Bovenkerk said. “I once even saved a kid’s life just by cutting his hair” by persuading the young man to continue with college after he nearly dropped out.
And he has found that on occasions when he needs a helping hand, some of his clients have been there for him.
“You will find out who your real friends are when you start your own business,” he said.
An historic theater gets a second act
By Jen Clancy and Jack Wolf
It was probably both “Weird Al” Yankovic’s 2015 Mandatory World Tour and the charm of an old playhouse that brought Douglas Avery to work at the Midland Theatre. But that year, Avery attended the singer’s concert at the downtown Newark venue, then found himself employed as events coordinator there later that year.
Eleven-hundred seats. Every one filled. That’s been Avery’s mission for the past seven years. He dreams of successful events like the yearly Nutcracker ballet, which goes up each November at the Midland on the Courthouse Square. Little girls in pigtails enter the theater walking hand in hand with their gray-haired grandparents, instantly warmed from the frigid outside when stepping into the majestically lit lobby of the historic venue. The seats are filled at show time, as dancers young and old take the stage.
The Midland opened in December 1928, when the theater hosted its grand opening just days before Christmas. It was bustling for decades, giving people of Newark the best and newest shows in “film and music all the way from Hollywood to New York,” according to the Midland’s website.
On a recent afternoon, Avery was working near the theater entrance. Beyond his desk, dozens of framed and signed photos of previous performers line the wall. In the next room there’s cavernous hall, two stories tall with massive chandeliers and archways. Even the exit signs have stained glass on them.
“This is the 20th year of the second life of the theater,” Avery said. On a recent visit, he walked into the dark, empty theater, where a sea of seats faced a low-lit stage.
Despite this grandeur, Midland’s history includes a 14-year-long hiatus, a period ominously titled “Darkness Falls on the Theater” on Midland’s website. The theater closed in the 1970s, but the Longaberger’s, the “basket people” formerly headquartered in central Ohio, “came in and saved it,” Avery said.
In 1992, David Longaberger purchased the Midland Theater and poured $8.5 million into renovations. Longaberger was an active member of the Newark community, where he built a seven-story office building shaped like a picnic basket. He died in 1999.
Attendance has suffered in recent years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as prolonged sewer and road construction projects clogging downtown. Avery and his colleagues are addressing these challenges. Recently, they have attracted attendees with a city-approved area that allows people to have alcoholic drinks outside the theater. Both this initiative and SummerFest sought to “create traffic and make this a center for activity.”
The Midland has hosted an eclectic array of music talent, including the B52’s and Neil Diamond. Now, it also serves as a venue for comedians and musicians.
But a more notable event occurred on January 21, 2022. Governor Mike DeWine took the stage with Intel president and CEO Patrick Gelsinger to announce the company’s massive manufacturing campus coming to Central Ohio. That was a big deal for Midland.
The selection process was competitive, especially for struggling small theaters in Central Ohio towns, Avery said. Still, he said, “They picked us.”
Downtown Cycles: connecting with the community through bikes
By Pol Le, Thu Nguyen, & Doug Swift
With tools and engine parts all spread out in the garage, Cody Clary’s father was a “biker’s” biker. He favored the motorized kind. “I wasn’t going to get messed up in that,” Clary, with his sideways grin, said of his dad’s hobby.
So Clary got into his kind of bikes. The kind with pedals and chains. The kind that could carry you right out of the neighborhood. That you could make hop and spin.
When they were 14, Clary and his buddy started working on a BMX course on 21st Street. That’s what they called it: “21st Street.” It was city property, and the city knew what they were doing. But these were kids shoveling, moving dirt, making dips, making ramps, repairing the earth after rainstorms, year after year. About 30, 40 kids hung out here with their bikes. The city said nothing.
Years spun like an upside down bike tire.
“Pretty soon, you gotta make a dollar,” Clary said. The obvious choice for him was to work at a bike shop, which he did for 13 years, for minimum wage.
Eventually he thought of opening his own bike shop, and he couldn’t see any reason not to. “You’ve just got to do it,” he told himself. And he did. Right on the square in Downtown Newark.
He founded Downtown Cycles with Justin Wood nine years ago. They didn’t have a lot of money, but they were creative.
“[There is] stuff you thought you needed, but there is a way to get around. We used the same layout of the previous business owners. We bought a $900 [to] $1,000 bike stand for a couple hundred from another closed bike shop,” Clary said.
They built up the shop little by little, stocking inventory, repainting the walls, putting a new floor down in the showroom. Gesturing to an old photo of his daughter on her pink bike, he smiled as he mentioned how his now 14-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son are his biggest motivation.
And that concern for his loved ones spills over into a connection with his community.
“Not everyone is a cyclist by choice. They became a cyclist because they could not drive ever again, or they have been in trouble so much that they could only afford a bike.”
Sometimes, Clary quietly fixes up a bike for someone in need. At other times, he donates bikes to the Salvation Army. He works with a customer who mows his lawn weekly in exchange for bicycle custom service. He gives out free tools to community members who need a leg up and a way to earn money.
And here at his side is Jesse Pavlov. They used to wield shovels, now they wield wrenches. Clary had to leave the shop to pick up his daughter, and he told us to talk to his friend. Pavlov gave a warning: Be careful you don’t fall for a bike guy. You’ll have a hard time making room for yourself in the relationship.
“Cycling is a lifestyle insurance,” he said, “You are pretty much in.”
Pavlov doesn’t ride BMX anymore, he rides road bikes. Long distances. We asked him what is the attraction. The phone rang. He didn’t answer it.
“I guess I’m an endorphin junkie. It does feel good afterwards.”
The phone rang again. “It’s therapeutic.” He stared straight to nowhere, on a far country road. “Meditative.”
He finally answered the phone. “Downtown Cycles.”