04-05-2012, 08:48 AM
  • Johnny
  • Emeritus
  • Wausau, Wisconsin, USA
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Rediscover The Barbershop

For the past few months, I’ve been having my haircut at various barbershops. For most of my adult life, I went to unisex salons that reeked of perm chemicals and mousse. Every time I’d go, I’d walk away with a bad haircut. On top of that, I always felt out of place. Most of the clients were usually women and a woman was cutting my hair. I’d just go in, sit there silently while the person cut my hair, and leave.

I don’t know why I stopped going to a barbershop. As a child, I went to a barbershop on the main street in my hometown. It was called “Mack's Barbershop.” I remember being fascinated with all the barber stuff. What I remember most though, was the distinct smell of the place. Even as a young child, I could sense that a barbershop was a cool hang out for men. Thirty-five years later, I’m rediscovering the barbershop. You should too.

A Brief History of Barbershops

The 1880′s to the 1940′s were the golden age for barbershops. During this time, men socialized in all male hangouts, and barbershops rivaled saloons in popularity. Visiting the barbershop was a weekly, and sometimes daily habit. Men would stop in not only for a haircut and a shave, but also to visit with friends and chew the fat.

During this golden age, barbershops were classy places with often stunning surroundings. Marble counters were lined with colorful glass blown tonic bottles. The barber chairs were elaborately carved from oak and walnut, and fitted with fine leather upholstery. Everything from the shaving mugs to the advertising signs was rendered with an artistic flourish. The best shops even had crystal chandeliers hanging from fresco painted ceilings.

Despite this level of luxury, barbershops were homey and inviting. A memorable and heavenly man aroma filled the air. The smell of cherry, wintergreen, apple, and butternut flavored pipe and tobacco smoke mixed with the scent of hair tonics, pomades, oils, and neck powders. These aromas became ingrained in the wood and every cranny of the shop. The moment a man stepped inside, he was enveloped in the warm and welcoming familiarity. He was immediately able to relax, and as soon as the hot lather hit his face, his cares would simply melt away.

The Decline

The first blow to barbershops came in 1904 when Gillette began mass marketing the safety razor. Their advertisements touted the razor as more economical and convenient than visiting the barbershop. The use of safety razors caught on, and during World War I, the US government issued them along with straight razors to the troops. Having compared the two razors size by side, upon returning home from the front many soldiers discarded both the straight razor and their frequent trips to the barbershop. Going to the barber for a shave became a special occasion instead of a regular habit.

In the decades after WWI, several other factors combined to weaken the place of the barbershop in society. Companies like Sears began selling at-home haircutting kits, and mom began cutting Junior’s and Pop’s hair. Then the Depression hit, and people cut back on discretionary spending like barber shaves. The loss of male lives in WWII and Korean wars also shrunk barbers’ pool of clientele. Then in the 1960′s Beatle mania and the hippie culture seized the country, and hairstyles began to change. Men started to grow their hair longer and shaggier, and their visits to the barber became infrequent or non-existent.

Even when short hair came back into style during the 1980′s, men did not return en masse to the barbershop. Instead, a new type of hairdresser siphoned off the barbers’ former customers: the unisex salon. Places like “SuperCuts” which were neither beauty salons nor barbershops, catered to both men and women. Many states’ licensing boards accelerated this trend by ceasing to issue barber licenses altogether and instead issuing a unisex “cosmetologist” license to all those seeking to enter the hair cutting profession.

Why Every Man Should Go To A Barber Shop

A barber knows how to cut a man’s hair.

If you’re like most men these days, you’re probably going to some unisex chain salon like SuperCuts. I used to do it too. Most of the time, I’d walk out of these places with a crappy haircut. Sometimes, my haircut would look decent for the first week or so, but then it would grow out into a horrible mess.
The problem is that many of the people who work at salons are not trained barbers. They’re cosmetologists. The difference between the two can spell the difference between a bad haircut and a great one.

A barber is trained to cut with clippers, the main tool in cutting a man’s hair. Cosmetologists, on the other hand, are trained to use scissors. Their training is also geared towards catering to women’s hair. They become experts in styling, coloring, and perming- things a man has no need for. That’s why when you ask the stylist at SuperCuts to use the number 2 on the clippers; you walk away with a bad haircut. She’s probably not well versed in how to use them. But a barber can employ the clippers with finesse.

It’s a great place to chew the fat with other men.

When I went to hair stylists, I hardly ever talked to the woman who cut my hair. I’d chat about my family and theirs and that’s about it. The woman who cut my hair usually ended up chatting it with the other women in the salon, while I sat there awkwardly.

Barbers, on the other hand, are interesting guys with interesting stories to tell. On my visits to the barbershop, I’ve met all kinds from all walks of life. Each of them had fascinating stories to share. And I in turn feel at ease to say what’s on my mind. There is conversation about politics, cars, sports, and family. Guys read the newspaper and comment on current events. In between the banter, jokes are told and laughs are had. And everyone is involved: the barbers, the customers getting their haircut, and the customers waiting to get their haircut. Adding to the enjoyment is that a variety of men take part in the conversation; young, old, and middle-aged join in the mix.

I think there’s a good argument that barbershops are among America’s last civic forums. Where do people go today just to talk with others in the community? Coffee shops? Every time I go to a coffee shop, people are at their own tables minding their own business. The only other place that I can think of is a bar, and I won't take my grandson to one of those. So, if you want to get your thumb on the pulse of civic life in your community, head over to the barbershop.

You can get a great shave.

Many barbershops still give traditional single blade razor shaves. You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced the pleasures of a great shave at a barber. This past weekend, I went to a barber here in town to get a shave. I reclined in the plush old school barber chairs that had ashtrays in the arm rests, a throw back to a time when people could smoke in public places. Then my shave commenced. The barber first wrapped a hot towel around my face. Next, the barber massaged in a cream to clean out my pores.

After that, several more hot towels were applied. By then, I was feeling nice and relaxed, on the verge of falling asleep relaxed. The barber then massaged in some cream to soften my beard. Next, the barber brushed a warm lather into my beard that smelled like man and not like that crappy artificial goo you buy in a can. The barber then took a piece of razor sharp metal and scraped my beard off for the closest, best shave I’ve ever had. Allowing another man to hold a razor to your neck is a good way to remind yourself that you’re alive. To finish it all off, I got another hot towel wrapped on my face along with a final face massage with a soothing cream. When I stepped out of the shop, I felt like a new man, ready to take on the world.

It’s a great activity to do with your father or son.

Men need traditions that can help bond them together. Visiting the barbershop with your father or son is a great tradition to begin in your family. Many men have been going to the same barber all their life and have introduced their sons to the same chair and the same barber. What a great way to bond with the men in your life!

You’ll feel like a man.

Every time I go to the barbershop I just feel more like a man. I don’t know what it is. Perhaps it’s the combination of the smell of hair tonics and the all-man atmosphere. But more so, it’s the awareness of the tradition of barbershops. Barbershops are places of continuity; they don’t change with the shifts in culture. The places and barbers look the same as they did when your dad got his haircut. It’s a straightforward experience with none of the foofoo of the modern age. Just great haircuts and great conversation.

When you walk out of the barbershop with a sharp haircut, you can’t help but feel a bit of swagger creep into your step. So next time you spot that familiar red and white striped pole, stop in. You’ll be glad you did.

Footnote: Portions of this article were copied from an article written back in 2008 on The Art of MANLINESS. Some content was removed and my thoughts and experiences inserted.

- Johnny -

189 26,344
 04-05-2012, 09:41 AM
  • mikeperry
  • Senior Member
  • St Louis via the UK
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Hi Johnny

As always, very! well written Thumbup

I remember being taken by my dad to a "proper" barbershop every 8 weeks when I was a (very young) kid in the 70's.

I've never liked getting my hair cut (hence the long hair since I left school), but even now I can still clearly remember the inside of that barbershop, with its 4 (huge) leather barber chairs, the wooden (shaped) plank spanning across the armrests that I had to sit on to get my haircut, the black and white photos that covered the walls, the "classic" barbershop smell associated with "real men" (James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, The Saint, etc)...

The only part of the hair cut I enjoyed back then was the feel of the straight razor on the back of my neck, followed by a good dusting of talc at the very end.

Take care, Mike

23 1,872
 04-05-2012, 10:25 AM
  • Dave
  • Moderator Emeritus
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This was a great read. Thanks Johnny

116 3,804
 04-05-2012, 10:30 AM
  • tgutc
  • Senior Member
  • Michigan
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Great article Johnny. I too love the barbershop. I get my haircut every Tuesday and Saturday and It's something I always look forward to. I have gained good friendships with the Barber and the regulars.

45 3,955
 04-05-2012, 10:36 AM
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Great essay, Johnny. It comes at a good time, too - I need a haircut.

(04-05-2012, 10:30 AM)tgutc Wrote: Great article Johnny. I too love the barbershop. I get my haircut every Tuesday and Saturday and It's something I always look forward to. I have gained good friendships with the Barber and the regulars.
Tuesday and Saturday? That's quite a commitment. I'm lucky to go every 2 months.

10 1,858
 04-05-2012, 10:41 AM
  • MrGuy
  • Member
  • Black Hills of SD
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Very nice article! A barber shop opened up just down the block from me and I've been waiting patently for the right time to go, or in other words, as soon as I'm due for a cut. I understand that they moved from another location, so I'm hoping for some good old barber style atmosphere. They also put out a little hand written sign tacked to a chunk of plywood saying that shaves are $10. I might have to check that out as well. I don't think I'll get a better shave, but it will be an interesting experience.

1 107
 04-05-2012, 11:12 AM
  • Brent
  • Active Member
  • Columbus, OH
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Great article.

I was in the same boat as you - I'd go to Sports Clips, SuperCuts, etc. Each time I went in there there were different stylists.

About a year ago I ended up walking into an old style barber shop when I was in a shopping center. They had one of those rotating barber poles which drew me in.

The first time in there was an experience - The barber shop is owned by two women who've been cutting hair probably longer than I've been alive. It's amazing to see how fast they go and how good they are. While I was in there my first time there was a one-eyed dog wearing a leather jacket sitting in a waiting chair staring at me the entire time and one of the owners that was cutting my hair stopped when a customer came in - she ended up going outside, buying a gun from the customer and come back in and went to cut my hair like nothing happened. From then on, I needed to be a part of that weirdness Tongue

But, it is a nice experience. They have the old style chairs, know what they're doing and clean up your neckline with a (disposable) straight razor. They also give straight razor shaves on request also. That exprience actually was my trigger to getting into wetshaving. Prior to going in I was at the grocery store to pick up some cartridges and became so angry at the price I didn't even buy them. A few hours later I was feeling the back of my neck and decided I'd use a straight razor from then on. Ordered a set online, got it in a few days and easter last year was the first shave with a straight, last with a cart.

0 353
 04-05-2012, 03:48 PM
  • wingdo
  • The Dude Abides
  • Florida
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Another excellent story Johnny. Next time I am going anywhere near Wausau I will have to PM you so I can buy you a beer.

I've been going to a "stylist" for years and while I do get a great cut, first I agree with you about the conversation. While I love Lisa, nothing she says fascinates me and I am always glad when it is over. Secondly, good lord it has gotten expensive.

I must find a good barber around me, go there get a real hair cut, a real shave (good lord I hope we allow a true straight razor here and not make barbers use those Feather / Dovo disposable straight edge razors), and some real conversation. Sports! Politics! Women! Did I mention Sports???

129 4,001
 04-05-2012, 03:54 PM
  • Dave
  • Moderator Emeritus
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I have the best barber ever (my wife). She's been cutting my hair for ages and does as good a job as my barber did. I'd be afraid to let her shave me though

116 3,804
 04-05-2012, 04:34 PM
  • Java
  • Active Member
  • Cartersville, Georgia, USA
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Well written, Johnny. I haven't been to an honest to goodness barber shop in 20 years. Just the other day I noticed one downtown. I think I need a haircut...............

0 273
 04-05-2012, 06:20 PM
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Nicely written and it did bring back some memories.

I have fond memories of the barbershop I went to as a child. I particularly remember the Bay Rum the barber splashed on my neck and sideburns after the str8 razor finished up the regular haircut.

And the older gents there always looked out for the kid and would remind me when the gent in the chair was almost done with his haircut so that I could finish what I was reading and get up. I don't think many were there for haircuts, it was just the place they hung out with each other. It was an old room in an old building with high ceilings and tin work up there, cast iron radiators and the old leather chairs you mentioned.

Sadly, I don't know of any barbershops locally, the few that were here are no longer and the atmosphere simply wasn't the barbershop of old. Even if I did know of any, I do my own buzzcut every other week specifically because of where I live. The closest barber shop was 20 minutes away and I can have my buzzcut and be all cleaned up in the same time as it took to drive there one way. Heck, my memories of old are better than the barbershops of today were anyway. I doubt their shaves are closer, heck, I'd need a skin graft if they were. Smile

32 6,609
 04-05-2012, 06:23 PM
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Great write up!!

1 223
 04-05-2012, 07:31 PM
  • ridgerunner
  • Moderator Emeritus
  • Southern Appalachian Mountains
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Johnny, another well written article.Thumbsup I am fortunate to have a local barbershop that I frequent. Rocky is a fourth generation barber and his daughter has joined the business and she has cut my hair about half the time. I found Rocky's last year after my regular barber moved.

You keep writing and we'll keep reading and enjoying.

34 1,760
 04-05-2012, 09:02 PM
  • bullgoose
  • The Enabler
  • Redondo Beach, California, U.S.A
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I have not had much luck finding a good barbershop in the Redondo Beach area but will be very happy if I ever do.

54 21,984
 04-05-2012, 11:16 PM
  • GreekGuy
  • Not saving money yet....
  • La Jolla, CA
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Thanks Johnny for this article. What a fascinating read. I've heard of a very good barbershop here in SD that gives straight shaves. After reading this, I think I'm going to have to finally check it out

9 541
 04-05-2012, 11:27 PM
  • kav
  • Banned
  • east of the sun,west of the moon
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It's ironic, but the news today talked about the Master's golf tournament and The sponsoring company CEO is- a woman.
No offense to golfers- but I agree with Mark Twain's assessment.What I do not agree with is the persistent battering down of
ALL cultural and biological 'barriers.' Everything isn't a brave woman VS Burmese ( screw that myanmar sillyness) thug generals.
Globalisation seems to be a universal dumbing down and studied mediocrity on all fronts besides sexual divisions.
I think barbershops are the american equal to ozzie native men's dances. They swing bullroarers to warn off women and nobody seems offended by their belief system.

2 3,167
 04-06-2012, 02:47 AM
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I have not found a decent barber shop out in here in the suburbs of Chicago yet... Growing up in Brooklyn, they were a dime a dozen. A lot of the younger barbers these days want to cut everything with a clipper(even the top). I still enjoy the conversation and "camaraderie", just wish the haircuts were to my expectations.
Great article Johnny

9 333
 04-06-2012, 06:21 AM
  • Qhead
  • Member
  • Cleveland, Ohio
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Love the article. I've been frequenting the same barbershop for years now for a haircut every month and a half or so. So happens, I usually have the gal there cut my hair - but she is a true barber, not a cosmetologist, and she does a great job. She only works on men's hair.

In Ohio, you have to have a barber's license (distinguised from a cosmetologist license) to use a straight edge and do a neck shave on the back on the head. The chains - Best Cuts, Great Clips, etc. do not do neck shaves - another reason not to go there. They are cosmetologists, not barbers. Using an electric razor for the neck is unacceptable!

There is a chain here that has young pretty things wash and cut your hair, but again they don't do the neck shave - tempting, but not enough for me to leave my classic barbershop...

16 199
 04-06-2012, 06:25 AM
  • EHV
  • Senior Member
  • Milford,PA
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Johnny, this is a fantastic piece! Very timely for me as well.
I have been thinking of trying to find a barber instead of the stylist I go to. While the haircut is usually very good, I find that, as mentioned above, I end up looking like a I need another one in 2 weeks which is not enough time IMO. My appointments are scheduled every month so the last two weeks are a miserable struggle trying to get my hair to behave.

Some of these modern barbershops closer to my area do have a bit of a different look and atmosphere from what I am finding. Younger,(no problem with that) barbers with pompadours and "full sleeve" arm tattoos and some of the shops are getting $75-$85 for a cut alone. You can find pics of some of these places online and while they may be fantastic, it's not the barbershop that I recall from my childhood which was basically just as you described.
Two barbers that spoke mainly Italian and upon entering my mom or dad was asked.."you wanna short or you wanna long....?" Great guys and I always walked out of there with a great haircut, smelling good with a nice piece of Bazooka bubble gum.
Great stuff and I just gotta find a place like that again.

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 04-06-2012, 06:27 AM
  • Dave
  • Moderator Emeritus
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And that same piece of Bazooka bubble gum always ended up with a hair in it somehow Biggrin

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