The Art of Manliness had a post last week in praise of the masculine sanctuary known as the barber shop. It struck a chord with me because of my own experiences, especially at one barber shop in particular.
Growing up, barber shops were something I went to with about as much enthusiasm as going to the dentist. In fact, if I could have gone to the barber shop as often as I went to the dentist (twice a year) I would have been happier. Nevertheless my mother would take me to get my haircut about once a month, dating back to the days when the barber would plop a booster seat in the big swivel chair and my mother would request a “Regular Boy”. I think she was referring to the style of haircut and not to me, specifically.
As I got older one of my aunts would often cut my hair in her beauty shop, though once I got to college my desired “twice-a-year-whether-I-need-it-or-not” schedule became more of a reality. Once into the corporate world I visited a succession of walk-in centers ala Cost Cutters or Fantastic Sam’s. Then in 1993 we bought a house over on St. Paul’s east side and I soon discovered a classic barber shop on Payne Avenue, just a couple of blocks from my house, called Parkway Barbers.
Walking in the first time I knew I was in a real-live, honest-to-goodness barber shop. It had the classic candy-striped rotating pole outside and four barber chairs inside. The barbers were a couple of older guys named George and Ted (who were in charge) and a couple of younger guys. Brick walls, sports magazines and Popular Mechanics defined the waiting area, with some chairs set along the wall in front of the barber chairs so people could sit and join in on the conversations taking place in the big chairs. The smell was a masculine concoction of leather, tonic, shaving soap, pomade and Clubman Pinaud as distinctive in its own way as walking blind-folded into a bakery. It was as comfortable as slipping into a favorite sweatshirt or old leather jacket.
I’d walk in on a Saturday morning, shortly after opening time and if the shop was busy (usually) I’d maybe get a cup of bitter coffee and flip through one of the magazines. More often I could just drop into whatever conversation was going on at the time. Most of the customers were guys my age or older, and it felt as if we knew each other, even if we didn’t. Some of the men were in there with young sons, introducing them to the Ways of Men. One time I was in Ted’s chair when hockey legend Herb Brooks came in and plopped down in one of the waiting chairs. “Hiya, Herbie,” Ted said. Turns out Herbie was another regular.
Most of the men who came in had “their” barber and would wait for him to be available if the shop was busy, but I’d generally take George or Ted, whoever had an open seat first. The thing is, nobody was ever in a hurry. It was a great place to hang out while knowing you were going to be able to check something off your schedule of weekend projects. Once you left the shop it was back to the “honey-do” list. It’s not that women weren’t welcome; I’m sure that any woman who came in there would have been treated very respectfully. It’s just that it was a place where men went to get their hair cut and there was no reason for a woman to poke her head in. Even after we moved out of the neighborhood I’d still drive back every month for my cut (no blow dry).
Both George (first chair by the door) and Ted (second chair) had an amazing ability to remember who you were and what you’d talked about the last time. Sometimes it almost seemed as if they’d pick up the conversation right were it left off in the previous visit, keeping track of kids, jobs and the golf or fishing trip you’d been planning. Some of those conversations inevitably turned to their retirement plans, to cutting down on the number of days in the shop, to moving to Arizona. Being men of their word, that’s what they ultimately did. I’m not sure what the transaction was but after they were gone the other two guys stayed on and I continued to stop in. Business may have been dropping off though, because one time when I went in they had converted the back half of the shop to a beauty parlor and a woman was operating a chair and a hair-washing station.
I went back a couple more times out of loyalty, and even had the woman cut my hair once, but it wasn’t the same anymore. The constant hum of the hair-dryers and the sound of the women trying to talk over them drowned out other conversation, even if you still really wanted to talk about putting a new front end into an ’89 Oldsmobile. The smell of the perming solution similarly overwhelmed the more understated, manly scents from before. You’d see one the regulars come in the door with a smile on his face and almost immediately go quiet, taking a chair to wait and fidgeting uncomfortably, perhaps taking a distracted flip through a magazine.
I’m sorry to say that it no longer seemed worth the drive for me to go back there to get my haircut. I found another barber shop closer to home. Still with some of the old-fashioned feel, though not quite as comfortable. I went there for a few years but never felt like I was part of a club. Eventually the time came around where my daughter started to cut my hair, and now when I get my haircut I just have to go downstairs. It’s comfortable all right, with all my stuff and favorite people around, but you know, somehow it’s just not the same. Maybe I need to buy some Clubman Pinaud.