By Rich Pollack
Hazel Butler tried to keep back the tears as she talked about 16 years in the rearview mirror and the few remaining days left before she stopped collecting memories at Rex’s Hairstyling, the iconic Delray Beach shop with roots stretching back to 1986.
It didn’t work.
Instead, Butler’s eyes watered as she stood planted next to the saloon-style doors separating her booth from the handful of others in the shop and talked about the closing of a landmark that had become a second home.
“I always knew the lights would be on,” she said. “Now, I’m leaving Delray and all that’s connected to it.”
Those lights that had been on for almost four decades went dark on Dec. 31, when owner Rex Thayer closed the doors of Rex’s, a barbershop and hair salon that served both men and women and was headquartered inside a small business complex on North Federal Highway.
“Delray is never going to be quite the same without Rex’s,” says longtime Delray Beach resident and businessman Fred Bonardi, who’d been getting his hair cut there every Friday for decades. “It’s old Delray and we’re going to dearly miss it.”
To grasp why the shop’s closing will leave a huge emptiness in the literal and figurative heart of Delray, you first have to understand that Rex’s was much more than just a place to get your hair cut or styled. It was where the people inside were able to blend humor with humility and kindness with kinship — all done under the umbrella of a small-town feeling that once was Delray Beach’s calling card.
Rex’s, for instance, was where you’d find stylists covertly sprinkling hair from other customers under the barber chair of an all-but-totally-bald client so he wouldn’t know just how little hair he actually had left.
Rex Thayer, owner of Rex’s Hairstyling in Delray Beach, is surrounded by his longtime employees (l-r) Hazel Butler, Billie Christ and Billie Birmingham. Thayer, 73, retired at the end of December and closed the salon. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
It’s where you’d meet both a stylist and a manicurist named Billie and of course find Hazel, who could easily be your favorite aunt.
It’s where a neighbor’s dog made a daily afternoon appearance to get a treat, and where customers were apt to bring goodies, such as homemade peanut brittle, during their regular visits.
It’s also where you might think you stepped back in time. As you walked through the front door you’d see an old-fashioned barber pole — which Thayer received as a gift — on a wall next to newspaper clippings, some from decades ago. Nearby was a photo of Delray Beach’s first barbershop — taken about a century ago — and framed pictures of local elected officials who had long since given up politics.
And Rex’s was also where you’d hear stories of Thayer going to the home of a dying customer who wanted to look his best before meeting his maker.
Ask those who are struggling to find someplace else to go for a haircut or a new hairdo what made Rex’s special and you’ll be certain to hear an almost cliché analogy to an iconic fictional television bar.
“It’s like Cheers, where everybody knows everybody else,” said Mike Gauger, the retired chief deputy of the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office who traveled from Wellington twice a month to get his hair cut by Rex. “Minus the beer.”
Gauger first met his longtime barber in 1979 while serving as the lead detective on a homicide in which Thayer was a friend of the victim. He had been coming to Rex ever since, at first when Thayer worked at another shop.
“We developed a friendship,” Gauger says.
The two have gotten so close that when Gauger needs to put a team together for a charity bowling tournament, he knows he can count on Thayer, a former pro bowler, to serve as his “ringer.” It comes as no surprise that they seem to win almost every tournament.
While their experiences come from different directions, Gauger and Bonardi have a common denominator also shared by former Delray Beach Police Chief Larry Schroeder. All three trusted Rex to cut their sons’ hair.
“This is the only place their mother would let them get their hair cut,” Bonardi said.
Schroeder even brought his grandson to Rex for his earliest haircuts.
As you might expect, there’s no shortage of stories that you’ll hear when you talk to customers or Thayer or any member of his team — Butler and the Billies, stylist Billie Birmingham and manicurist Billie Christ, who was with Rex’s for 30 years.
Thayer shared his experience with a very demanding customer who wouldn’t leave his apartment if his hair wasn’t perfect.
When he first arrived, the 6-foot-5-inch customer with snow-white hair presented a 10-point list and suggested Thayer contact his barber in Boston for tips on how to make his hair perfect.
Thayer complied and ended up cutting that customer’s hair every week for 28 years.
Longtime customer Wesley Moore says banter among the members of Rex’s team provided entertainment while his hair was being trimmed.
“They’re all up in each other’s business,” Moore said. “It’s hilarious to listen to.”
Over the years the clientele included billionaires, professional golfers, the children of tennis legends, baseball stars and of course, any local elected official who wanted to win.
Many of those politicians ended up in the chair of Karyn Premock. Thayer credits her for helping keep the business afloat in its early years when he was out of commission for several weeks following a traffic accident.
Premock retired three years ago and moved to Tennessee, where she was killed in a freak ATV accident in May. She is fondly included in many conversations about Rex’s, especially when it comes to knowing what was really going on in town.
“Politicians came here to hear things about other politicians, especially in Karyn’s chair,” Butler said. “You never know what you’re going to hear in here.”
Of course, you were also likely to hear a little gossip at Rex’s.
“People had been coming here for so long, they felt like they could say anything,” Thayer said.
For Schroeder, it’s the friendship that he developed with Thayer while sitting in the barber’s chair that kept him coming back.
“We shared, we laughed, and we became friends and that is why I never thought about going anywhere else,” Schroeder said. “That is what I will miss the most.”
At 73, Rex Thayer isn’t quite ready to retire, but says his decision to close the shop is about family — the family that has been forged over the snipping of scissors, the buzzing of razors and laughter that filled the booths.
Thayer said that Butler, the two Billies and an assistant, Debbie Cooksey —are ready for a break and he couldn’t imagine starting over without them.
“I’ve worked with these people my whole life,” he said.
For the last six years, Butler has been commuting back and forth from her home in Fellsmere, coming down on Tuesday, staying with friends, and driving back on Friday.
“I could still work but I can’t drive I-95 anymore,” she said.
As the curtain started coming down on Rex’s, news spread and Birmingham recalls the reaction of one of her customers, who happened to be 93.
“She said, ‘Now I know I’ve lived too long,’” Birmingham remembered.
Butler summed up the final days in just a few words.
“This is the closing of an era,” she said.