James McNeil is a 2002 Socorro High graduate and currently owns and operates McNeil's Barber Shop on California Street. He also helps coach Socorro wrestling.
What did you do when you were younger? What was your life like as a child?
It was pretty normal.
Were you into sports then?
Yes. I was into sports. Football, since I was six years old.
When did you graduate high school?
Why did you get into football?
I liked hitting people. I was fast and I liked hitting people.
What did you play?
Running back and linebacker.
Who was your coach at the time?
Big Al, Damien Ocampo’s dad. My junior and senior year he left and we got David White.
So you played football and wrestled in high school.
I wrestled my senior year. The year after I graduated they shut the program down.
What did you do after high school?
I went to Valencia for a little bit, then I went to PIMA Medical Institute. I worked in grocery since I was 15.
Where did you work grocery at?
Furr’s, and then Furr’s went bankrupt and turned into Smith’s.
I’m glad we’re both old enough to remember Furr’s.
Yeah, I worked that on into my twenties.
When did you decide to get into doing what you’re doing right now?
I was in Albuquerque working for Costco. It was like two weeks before Christmas and I got let go. I was on the schedule but for no hours.
So you moved to Albuquerque and you come back. Why did you come back?
I came back because my grandfather was ill, so I was moving back to help out my grandmother. By the time I got back he had already passed, and it’s been nine years now I want to say. My grandmother was here by herself, so I came back to help her out. She does more for me than I do for her. So I moved back and opened up my barber shop.
Did you go to school, or were you just naturally good at it?
I started cutting my own hair in seventh grade. Growing up I was too poor to afford a haircut. As I got better a couple of my friends allowed me to cut their hair. It never crossed my mind to be a barber. After I got let go from Costco, I was just like “I can’t work for anybody else.” That’s not my personality. I don’t like being told what to do.
So again, you move back from Albuquerque, and what was the plan from there?
I literally moved my family back with no job.
You move back at a relatively young age with your wife and children, and when did you open your first barber shop?
I moved here April 1, on April Fool’s in 2012. I opened my shop May 1.
Where did you go to barber school?
It’s called A Better You in Albuquerque.
How did you like barber college?
It was a lot of work. It was like going back to high school.
If you go to barber school, I feel like that’s a thing you know you’re going to do for a while. Did you feel like that?
Oh yeah. I like doing it.
How did your first shop go?
Oh man. It was slow at first. Really slow. I remember some days I just sat there and I didn’t even have one client. But it picked up quick. Way faster than I thought it would. I thought I would have to have a second job to get je through it. But no, it picked up insane.
What was it like cutting hair for people you know?
It was a lot more nerve-racking. In the big city if I cut someone’s hair I don’t have to worry about seeing them in the store. So when I’m working in Albuquerque or Rio Rancho there’s no stress. You don’t want to mess anyone up. But here you see everybody everywhere. I’ll see them at football games and at basketball games, and I’m constantly critiquing myself and staring at them like a creep.
But did that make you a better barber?
Yeah. It bothers me if I see imperfections in my hair.
This is a weird time to open a shop. What made you made to open up again?
So I’ve been here since 2012, but I moved trying to find a place. I outgrew my first shop. The second shop was huge, and someone bought it so I had to move out of that. Then my third shop it was like I just get somewhere quick. I’m in the process of buying this place. So no more renting. I’ll own this suite.
What’s it going to do for you when you own this shop?
Just peace of mind. It’s just the next step.
You’re a Socorro guy. Is it nice for you to see high school kids at games after a good haircut and see a new confidence in them?
Oh yeah. I always tell them you better not make my haircut look bad.
Tasha like you is such an important part of this community. How supportive has she been of you?
Oh a ton. With my crazy ideas, she’s hung in there with me since we were teenagers. Literally I said we’re moving to Socorro and I’m going to open up a shop. She was like what? And then she said okay. In all my endeavors she’s been supportive.
Why is Socorro a good place to raise kids?
Oh gosh, a ton of things. First of all when you’re young you don’t want to be here. But when you get older and have a family it’s so nice. Let me put it in perspective. In Albuquerque, two separate barber shops I worked at had three separate shootings, in the parking lot. My son’s daycare was constantly getting locked down because of all of the crime, and we were right by St. Pius. So all that constant, violent crime, I mean you kind of get nervous for your children. I lived on the second floor and our house got broken into.
So here, everyone knows everybody and everyone looks out for everybody. I know my kids’ coaches, teachers, everyone under the sun. There’s just good people here. No one is really trying to do anyone dirty or anything. They look out for your kids. Everyone pulls together and takes care of each other, and it’s super nice. The world is crazy right now. The good thing about Socorro I tell people, especially Tech students is in good times Socorro is boring, but in bad times Socorro is boring. You don’t have to worry about riots. You don’t have to worry about these crazy outbreaks. We take care of each other.
You grew up wrestling. How well did you know Joel and how much did you know you wanted to get a new program in here?
Me and Joel went to school together. He’s a year older than me. We were acquaintances at best. We didn’t dislike each other. We just had different friends. We had kids literally a month apart. I was living in Albuquerque and my son was wrestling up there, and Joel was in Las Vegas and we moved back at the exact same time. In 2012 we came back, and neither of us coached. My buddy Josh Gonzales was running the youth team at the time.
Was the program as big as it is now?
I think there were 12 of us. Now we have up to 50.
With where you’re at right now coaching, Joel kind of said “Guess what you’re the coach now.” Why was that a good thing?
It got me out of my comfort zone. We don’t grow when we’re on the coach. We don’t grow when we’re stagnant. He knew I didn’t want to be coach. I like to be in the background.
What did wrestling give you?
It gives you everything. It humbles you. It makes you stronger. It holds you accountable. All the life lessons, it teaches you everything. If you lose, it’s on you. That’s what I love about it. It teaches our youth just to hold themselves accountable.