Santa Maria resident owns Juan’s Running With Scissors!
A customer in Santa Maria — a man with an intense stare and a deep Southern accent — gave Juan Vergara Hovey two knives to sharpen, saying they’d been in his family for six generations.
“Six generations?” Mr. Hovey asked. “How do you know that?”
“Ah know,” he said. “Ah know.”
Still skeptical, Mr. Hovey said he cleaned and sharpened the knives only to discover that they actually had their date of manufacture stamped into the steel: 1843.
“Amazing. We’re talking antebellum America here, right? Two knives, one family, six generations. And in sharpening those knives, I restored them to the use of that family for one, maybe two more generations. What a reward!” said Mr. Hovey from Santa Maria, where he is known as “The Knife Whisperer.”
The professional knife sharpener, who calls his business Juan’s Running With Scissors!, hand sharpens knives, scissors, swords and surgical instruments.
“What I do for people is profoundly gratifying. I do a very simple thing. I sharpen the object with my hands, a stone and water and produce something that is beautiful and useful,” said the 77-year-old grandfather of two.
“But the stories that people tell me about their knives is one of the most exciting things about my work, like the customer in Santa Maria who gave me two knives that had belonged to his late father-in-law, who served Howard Hughes as his personal chef after the war,” Mr. Hovey told the News-Press. “After Hughes died, he helped raise money to save the Spruce Goose, Hughes’ huge propeller-driven wood-frame seaplane — at the time the largest airplane ever built, and the only large aircraft built of laminated spruce and birch.
“Hughes got the plane into the air only once, and then only for a minute or so,” he said.
The Spruce Goose used to sit in a dome next to the Queen Mary in Long Beach.
“Today, it’s in the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Ore.,” Mr. Hovey said. “My customer’s knives, meanwhile, are in his kitchen in Santa Maria.”
Mr. Hovey also shared the story of a daito— a samurai long sword possessed by a customer who asked him to repair some damage to the edge and sharpen it.
“My customer believes that his father took the sword from a Japanese officer whom he killed in hand-to-hand combat during the war in the Pacific — and I say ‘believes’ because the father came home from the war with this sword and a long scar across his back and did not speak of war to his son.
“What is certain is that this is not one of the cheap military-issue swords carried by Japanese officers whose families did not possess the real thing. It’s a true longsword whose provenance is precisely revealed by the mei, or the maker’s signature inscribed on the sword’s tang.
“The mei dates the sword to 1913, and the good bet is that the sword was the prized possession of the Japanese officer’s family, given to him by his father to carry into war according to time-honored tradition.
“That young man did not come home from war with his long sword. My customer’s father did, only to leave the story of the sword and the war he fought untold.
“It is a magnificent weapon, and it stands in a place of honor in my customer’s home in remembrance of the mute worthiness of his father and of the young Japanese officer who gave it up in death — and of that man’s father who, having lost his son in war, may himself not have spoken of war again.”
When it comes to fascinating stories, however, Mr. Hovey has a unique one about his own life during which he successfully took on several disparate careers that were purposely out of his comfort zone.
His 40-year career as a newspaperman began at the age of 19, when, with no degree in journalism and no experience, he became a cub reporter for the Kansas City Star in Kansas City, Mo., for $250 a month.
“I grew up in Santa Fe, dropped out of several colleges, and my father said I had to get a job. I wanted to write,” said Mr. Hovey. “Several years later, I became the courthouse beat reporter for the Jefferson City News Tribune in Missouri.
“Then I decided I wanted to write a book so I moved to Mexico. And six months later, my wife was killed in a car accident, and I and our 6-month-old daughter, Maya, narrowly escaped death. I was a 23-year-old widower with a baby daughter,” he said.
From 1967 to 1968, Mr. Hovey was city editor at the Santa Fe New Mexican until earning a year-long scholarship at the Santa Fe campus of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., after which Mr. Hovey moved to California to become the assistant city editor for the Oakland Tribune for 12 years.
He also married again and became the father of two more daughters.
“My wife, Elise Cassel, and I have been married for 43 years, and Maya is now 56,” said Mr. Hovey, who decided in 1973 to leave the newspaper business for something completely new — selling life and health insurance.
“It’s a very tough business that few people understand. I knew nothing about it, but I learned everything there was to know about it. In 1981, I was recruited to write newsletters about it in Santa Monica, and in 1997 I was offered a job with the Los Angeles Times writing about insurance and finance. I pinched myself everyday. I was the luckiest guy in the world,” he said.
Four years later, Mr. Hovey became a ghost writer for lawyers and CPAs, and in 2011, he retired to live in Santa Maria.
“I had written every damn word I wanted to write. I had accomplished my goal to become a true journalist, meaning somebody who actually knows what he is writing about.”
Once again, Mr.Hovey decided to try something totally different.
“I wanted to change gears, to rewire my brain,” he said. “I wanted to work with my hands, so I began woodworking, making furniture, and in the process became fascinated with making hand planes, a tool for smoothing wood, for woodworkers.
“I spent five years doing nothing but making hand planes — 50 to 60 of them — which I tried to sell with no luck, but I learned about steel and wood and sharpness.”
He came away from the effort knowing what sharp is, and when people started asking him to sharpen their salon and barber shears and their kitchen knives and the occasional samurai sword, he launched his business in 2019.
“It really took off after Williams Sonoma in La Cumbre Plaza hired me to sharpen knives in their store during the holiday season. The demand astonished me. No one was doing fine hand sharpening, which takes skill and patience,” he said.
“I use a technology even older than the pedal-driven stone grinding wheel — the Japanese waterstone. And I sharpen freehand — no machines, no cheater angle guides, just me, my waterstones and the knives.”
Besides salon shears and clipper blades for hair stylists and barbers, he also sharpens surgical and dental instruments for physicians, dentists and veterinarians.
His price for each piece is the same — $12.50 — “no matter how long, how short or how dull. If it has an edge, I can sharpen it.”
The former journalist finds it ironic that these days he struggles to write a sentence or a paragraph.
“My brain works in a different way,” he said. “It’s a different world for me — one that is profoundly exciting.”
For more information about Juan the Sharpener, call 805-878-5203 or visit www.juanthesharpener.com.