The Features

His Cartoonish Majesty Requests

Seth’s obsessions take on a new dimension.

From the Winter, 2012–2013, issue 

(No. 29)

Photograph by Tom Hicken
Tom Hicken

At first glance, the Crown Barber Shop, in Guelph, Ontario, doesn’t look much different from other places men go to read magazines and get a haircut. But the shop’s playful blue and silver decor, and a comically well-marked men’s room quietly stressing that the proprietor Tania Van Spyk cuts men’s—and only men’s—hair, suggests Crown has more of a story to tell. A closer inspection reveals a coy collection of oddities: On the counter sits a hardbound volume marked “Royal City Telephone Book.” A wall plaque announces Van Spyk’s induction to the Royal Order of the Golden Comb. And high upon a shelf sits a glass-encased effigy of a tiny magistrate, whom the lead article on a framed front page of a tiny newspaper called the Royal City Record reveals to be “the Secret King of Guelph.”

This spring, after years of apprenticeships and preparation, Van Spyk rented the small storefront that, by July, would become Crown, the cumulation of a long-held dream. With her carpenter father on-call to build the store’s cabinetry, Van Spyk turned the design of her shop over to her husband, the cartoonist Seth.

Many authors create simple backstories for their characters while researching or writing a book. Seth takes this habit to a point of obsession. Over a number of years he has created, in his basement, a cardboard replica of the fictional city of Dominion that appears in many of his stories. His books also tend to include minute details of his characters’ lives, perhaps most notably George Sprott: 1894–1975, which is itself a lengthy fictional biography of its title character, peppered with illustrations and photos of “artifacts” handcrafted by the author. The Crown Barber Shop is Seth’s latest character, and his first opportunity to unleash his quaint design and detailed backstory sensibilities on a real-world setting.

“We wanted the shop to have a retro look, obviously, since that’s my thing, but we didn’t want it to look like a re-creation,” Seth said while lounging in the shop’s waiting area one afternoon. “Old-time styling, but still a practical, workable place.”

So far, business has been brisk, and Van Spyk has no regrets over her choice of decorator. “What could be better for a shop than to go back to the way people did it in such a way that they defined it to the point where it worked really well,” she said from the chair next to her husband.

“He’s sort of a mysterious figure,” Seth said of the Secret King who overlooks Crown’s two barber chairs. “He’s behind the business, though never seen. The business was established apparently fifty years ago, in 1962, and has had three different barbers, of which Tania is the third....You receive a summons from him when you’re to report and be the latest one. That’s the little conceit of it.

“I’d love to do more of this kind of thing,” he added. “It’s like designing a book—you want every little detail right.” At which point Van Spyk realized her husband had not created a copy of her royal summons to hang on the wall, and Seth made note to correct the error.

Photograph by Tom Hicken Photograph by Tom Hicken Photograph by Tom Hicken Photograph by Tom Hicken Photograph by Tom Hicken Photograph by Tom Hicken Photograph by Tom Hicken