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Mister, can you spare a latté?

"Mister, can you spare a latté?" Continued...

Issue: "Not over till it's over," Nov. 1, 2008

In some regions, such trends are beginning to show up in employment numbers. In San Diego County, for example, employment declined in four of the six months measured between February and July, with year over year drops in each of the last three months, according to figures released by county researchers and the Chamber of Commerce.

For the past several months, Jack Johnson's job was on the bubble. The silver-haired, "semi-retired" barber works five days a week at Dominic's 2nd Street Barber Shop in El Cajon, Calif. It's a stepping-stone gig until he can cut back to three days and spend more time on his true calling as a "luthier," building stringed musical instruments.

Dominic's itself, a three-chair establishment that opened in 1963, is a manly affair. Marching high across one wall, dozens of law enforcement uniform patches: U.S. Border Patrol, California Highway Patrol, Burbank Police, and the like. Under that, a row of framed 8-by-10s, all of NASCAR champion driver Jimmie Johnson, who used to get his hair cut here before he made it big and moved away.

Shop owner Dominic Roccoforte had himself been looking to move away for over a year. Business had slowed, especially walk-in traffic, and Roccoforte, 41, had been looking to sell.

"Plenty of people wanted to buy the shop," said Johnson, 61, who calls himself "an old Michigan farm boy" and plies his trade wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a leather vest. "But the new owners of the mall wanted to raise the rent from $600 a month to $1,240."

Johnson lifts his clippers from a customer's beard and levels a gesture of incredulity at the perimeter of the tiny shop. "With what little space we have, that equates to $5.22 per square foot!"

A king's ransom in a mall in need of a facelift, and an amount that torpedoed every deal to sell the shop Roccoforte tried to make. Adding to his troubles: Business sales in California have plummeted in 2008, according to data compiled by county recorders. During the first nine months of the year, 16,342 firms sold, a decline of 19 percent from 2007. In September, the month that marked the Lehman Brothers collapse and federal bailouts of Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and insurer AIG, the news was even worse: 39 percent fewer businesses changed hands than in the same month last year.

All that news combined to force Roccoforte to drop his asking price to $8,500-$5,500 less than what he paid for the business two years ago. But on Oct. 14, just when he was losing hope, he found a taker: another retired barber who wanted to own a shop, but not run it. The buyer not only agreed to the new leasing terms, but threw in an extra $1,600 to sweeten the deal.

Which is good news for Jack Johnson. "I've been hanging in here for months waiting to find out whether I'd still have a job," he says, whisking his customer's shoulders with a brush made of Arabian horse hair (the same thing used to make violin bows, he confides).

And there's more good news: While people had grown a little more frugal and were waiting longer between trims, Johnson sees that trend reversing. "I think we've bottomed out in this area," he said. "I'm starting to get more walk-ins again. I think we're stabilizing, starting to bounce back."

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