Charlotte Millan Celebrates 53 Years of Owning Santa Ana's Tiniest Barbershop
For the past 53 years, drivers going down Main Street in downtown SanTana have seen Charlotte Millan do one of three things in her eponymous barbershop. Usually, they see her sitting down in one of the tiny (about the size of a janitor's closet) storefront's two chairs, reading the newspaper or her Bible. Sometimes, they'll see her with a broom, sweeping inside and outside to pass the time. And every once in a while, onlookers will see Millan, you know, actually cutting hair, always studiously, always briskly.
It's seriously tiny: a point guard can stretch out their arms and span the width of the place. Smushed between a bar and an evangelical church, it's nevertheless charmed generations of santaneros wondering how a business can survive in such a spot. But not only has Charlotte's Barbershop been a presence in downtown since the Eisenhower administration, she ain't going anywhere soon.
"I bought this little place for $500 in 1960 and I haven't changed anything," Millan says. "It looks the same now as it looked then."
She's the only worker, has no business phone, no website, and doesn't even bother to post her hours--her long-time customers know when to come in for a trim. "I don't know how long I'm going to be here; I'm getting up in years," Millan says. "But as long as I have a shop and I'm healthy, I'm gonna keep coming back, Monday through Sunday, 1 to 8."
The native of Silver City, New Mexico came to Santa Ana at nine years old, and never left. "Santa Ana was beautiful!" she says. "Everything was new back in the late '40s." Her family started buying and selling businesses all around downtown. There was the 24-hour Do Drop In Café on Fourth Street, where Millan's dad was the manager and she and her siblings worked together. There was a women's clothing store on Fourth called Secret Closet, then the Copper Cattle Café next to a Cadillac dealership. "My sister was good at coming up with names!" she says with a laugh.
In 1955, Charlotte married Gilbert Millan after he fought in the Korean War; the newlyweds went to the just-opened Disneyland "as a sort of honeymoon." She decided to become a barber, just like her father, and graduated from American Barber College in Los Angeles; back then, Orange County had no barber schools. MIllan then worked as an apprentice in a local barbershop for 18 months and passed her state board test before applying for a job in the place that's now hers, then owned by a man named Jesse. After about a month of working, the owner had a heart attack and passed away. Millan borrowed money from family members and bought the tiny barbershop at 25 years old.
Back then, downtown SanTana really was the epicenter of Orange County's shopping life. White flight and suburbia led to Charlotte's being one of the last remaining businesses in the area by the mid-1970s. "But, I stayed through the whole ordeal," Millan says. And so did her clients: former residents who went with the white flight out of the city, their children and grandchildren, and the current Latino mega-majority. Because of that latter influx, Millan's father encouraged her to learn Spanish--now, she speaks it with no traceable Anglo accent. "People ask me what part of Mexico I'm from," she says with a laugh. "I say Guanajuato, because I heard a customer mention it once!"
Millan can name all the people and places over the decades in downtown that have come and gone. The old Santa Ana City Hall and Police Station, which stood just down Main, is now owned by the DGWB advertising company. The Little Sparrow two doors down was the Santa Ana Café for decades and was favored by cops before being abandoned for about 13 years. The top-of-the-line department stores that once dotted downtown--Montgomery Ward, JC Penney, Rankin's, Woolworth's--are long gone, replaced by stores catering to Latino immigrants.
"I'm seeing the new Santa Ana, the improvements," she says. "Now there are restaurants everywhere, like the older days. It's good to see it, when a lot of people were scared and didn't want to do anything with it. I grew to love this shop and talking to the people. I just love Santa Ana. I always thought it was a safe place. I've survived here."
And her haircuts? Old-school, down to the straight razor she uses for trimming sideburns and napes. Unlike the new wave of hip barbers using this technique to seem retro, she's never forsaken the technique, and her reason is as straightforward as her story: "That's why I went to barber school."