Dora Garcia can’t remember exactly when she started cutting hair at Tower Plaza Hair Styles, but she knows it’s been either 22 or 24 years.
On Wednesday, Garcia snipped along the top of John Lack’s head. The senior vice president of Frost Bank is one of her regular customers, as are many people who work in the building, by virtue of location and her strong reputation. Ramiro Benavidez founded the barber shop in 1973, when the original Frost Bank building opened on 100 W. Houston St, and Garcia bought the business from Benavidez before he died.
The shop is tucked away in an adjoining hallway facing North Flores Street outside of the main part of the building and often goes overlooked. The interior hasn’t changed much since the shop first opened, Garcia said. There are two barber chairs, two sinks, soft chairs for waiting customers, and hair products and styling tools covering the counters. But a steady flow of people stops by to purchase a snack or soda in the connected convenience store during the day, and either Garcia or shoe-shiner Gregorio Diaz checks them out at the cash register. The business doesn’t accept credit cards.
The store relies on word-of-mouth promotion, so much so that even Adrianna Saenz, who has worked at Frost Bank since 2004, only recently discovered she could get her hair cut right below her office.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come in here, but I thought it was just for men,” Saenz explained.
Garcia sees plenty of the local influencers, movers, and shakers. Not only does the 66-year-old cut Frost Bank CEO Phillip Green’s hair, but she also cuts hair for Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and District Attorney Joe Gonzales. She used to cut Paul Elizondo’s hair as well, and she speaks fondly of the late county commissioner. She’s known Elizondo since she was 10 years old, she said, because her father was a mariachi singer and worked in the same musical circles as Elizondo.
“I used to cut his hair at the hospital [when he was sick]. He’d say, ‘Look at the way you cut me, Dora!’” she laughed. She pulled out a few photos of a smiling Elizondo from an envelope of other printed pictures. “And if I didn’t have a mirror, I’d take a picture for him and say ‘Look, Paulito, you look handsome.’”
She keeps photos of her clients tacked up on her wall, interspersed with family photos, Christmas cards, and graduation announcements. Many of the photos are old and faded.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen a lot of [clients] come and go,” she said.
Garcia said she has been cutting hair since she was a kid. She started with her dolls, eventually working her way up to her friends and siblings. She even gave the older women in her neighborhood perms for $2 a head, she said. She bought Tower Plaza Hair Styles from Benavidez after he was diagnosed with cancer and asked her to take over.
“I didn’t know nothing about business, but [Benavidez] said, ‘Dora, I’ll tell you how to do it.’ But then he said, “F—, I can’t remember.’ And to this day, he never told me how to [run the business]. But I’m doing something right,” Garcia laughed.
Garcia offers a full range of hair services at Tower Plaza Hair Styles — cuts, color, blowouts, styling. She charges between $25 and $30, depending on how long the customer’s hair is. But she often tries to undercharge her longtime clients, and they chide her for not taking their money, she said. She traveled to the home of Ed Whitacre, the former chairman and CEO of both General Motors and AT&T, after he had knee surgery to cut his hair. He offered her $200 for her trouble, she said, but she tried to say no.
“He said, ‘Dora, you’re the first woman to ever refuse money,’” she chuckled.
She takes her time tending to her clients, chatting with them about their day and listening to their life updates. New customers warm up to her quickly. Garcia said a young construction worker who has been on the job across the street confides in her about his problems with women.
“Some people say, ‘I just come here to get spiritual healing,’” she said. “Some are quiet. A lot share what they’re going through. You try to be here. I listen to their problems and let them know how I feel.”
Other customers she has known her entire career at Tower Plaza Hair Styles. She’s been seeing Jack Kallison, whose family put up local landmark Kallison’s Western Wear Cowboy, since she first started at the barbershop. Kallison still makes a monthly trip from a senior living facility near the Dominion to get his hair cut and dyed, nails clipped, and shoes shined. Kallison has been getting his hair cut at Tower Plaza Hair Styles since the shop opened in 1973, he said, and Benavidez cut his hair then.
On Feb. 14, he paid Garcia another visit for a full work-up. She cut his hair as Diaz polished his black shoes until they gleamed. After Garcia dried Kallison’s hair and smoothed it down, she helped him get up from the barber chair. He looked dapper in a brown suit and tie, ready for a Valentine’s Day date back at home.
“This lady right here, she knows her stuff,” he said.
Garcia also leaves room in the shop for Diaz’s shoe-shine operation. Diaz joined Garcia after her former shoe-shiner became ill and retired. Diaz applied with the experience of shining “a lot of boots” at Fort Sam Houston for 14 years.
“She’s a good lady,” Diaz said of Garcia, who maintains Diaz was an answered prayer from God.
“When the previous man left, customers would come and ask, ‘When will you have a shoe-shine man?’ I prayed, and a few days later, here comes Gregorio,” she said.
Diaz regularly shines shoes for local politicians such as District 6 City Councilman Greg Brockhouse and Mayor Ron Nirenberg, but Garcia hasn’t been able to style Nirenberg’s hair yet.
“Ron doesn’t get his hair cut here, but I’m trying,” she said. “I’ll get ahold of him someday!”