Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Barber of DeVille

When I was a boy, going to the barber shop was a monthly Saturday afternoon ritual.  Even then, I recognized that there was something special about a place that catered to men so exclusively.  And what is not to like?  The smell of leather strop and hair tonic, the precision of a razor trim, the snicking of hair providing a backbeat for the sound of casual conversation among men who have known each other for decades. 

As I grew to become a teenager in the 80s (when the mullet was the height of teenage fashion), my barber – the only one in town – managed to keep the back of my hair trimmed higher and tighter than I wanted.  (I suspect my dad of tipping heavily after the fact to ensure that my nape curls got neatly trimmed).   The barbershop held the same smells and sounds as my childhood, but with a different cast of characters.  The main difference, though, was that I drove myself. No matter where you go, the reassuring familiarity and timelessness of the barbershop that made it so comfortable.
Over the years, however, as terms like ‘metrosexual’ and ‘manscape’ entered into our jargon, men -  even southern men - began to eschew the hometown barber shop and began to go to unisex salons.  Not all… some held to tradition.  But old-time barbershops have increasingly disappeared over the years.  Some hold-outs, however, have managed to maintain the exact same venue, the same feel, even using the same elixir on the nape of the neck as they have done for the past fifty years. 
And is there anything that speaks more to small southern towns than the local barber shop?
It is only recently, and primarily in the metro areas, that there has been a resurgence of the ‘full service’ barbershop – the kind of place that promises hot towels, close shaves, and perhaps a drop or two of an adult beverage.  Although it was never part of the southern barber tradition, it has undeniable appeal – a male-only establishment where both testosterone and pampering mix in relatively inexpensive luxury.  These establishments  - I will call them Man-Cave Barbershops - represent something different in modern society, and use the venue of the barbershop as a mechanism for delivering something quite different. 
The Traditional Barber
Traditional establishments are harder to find these days. Any time I travel, I look for one, just to see if I can find a place with just the right feel of permanence.  I found one in San Antonio that I loved - the Gunter Barbershop. Downstairs in the Sheraton Hotel downtown, the barbershop had the small-town barber feel.  A shoeshine stall in the corner.  Day-old newspapers and year-old Field and Streams on the table. A barber with thinning hair, slicked back with a product that has been discontinued for fifteen years.
Inexpensive haircut, easy conversation.  Businessmen from downtown came in wearing five-hundred dollar shoes to get a great seven-dollar haircut. Discussion tended towards the conservative political vein, but was not offensively so. 
A barber's shop in Vicksburg, Mississippi gave me a similar situation (well, maybe not the shoeshine...).  A strip mall on the outskirts had me smiling before I ever walked through the door.

Predictably, the decor was more eight-point-buck-on-the-wall than its counterpart in San Antonio, but the homey feel was no less delightful.  Mr. Downey gave me a great haircut, talcum-powdered my neck and sent me off.

In every one of the traditional barbershops I have gone to - small town, big city, ghost town - all of them have been an entry into the local society.  In the barber's stool, the native and the outsider are equally welcome.  Topics for discussion are predictable (note to self: pick a NASCAR driver to support before my next haircut), and conversation is easy. 
The Man-Cave Barbershop - the MCB - is designed specifically to serve one function - to be a guy place.  It is, at its essence, a niche market.  New Orleans currently has two that I know of - the original location of Aidan Gill on Magazine Street, and a spin-off (started by a few of the barbers who once worked for Aidan Gill) called Modern Men Barbershop in Uptown.

A friend of mine, Don Charles, was given a gift of a Saturday at Gill's, and came back well cropped, well shaven, and pretty happy with the experience.  He recommended that I give it a try.

So last year, I went with my friend Miles one day to Modern Men.  The experience is unlike anything else I have done.

I was met at the door with an offer of a beer, a whiskey, or a cold drink (which is New Orleans code for a 'coke', 'pop', or 'soda', depending on your place of origin).  10 am  in New Orleans?

Jameson's it is.

There is art on the wall depicting women in slightly suggestive positions.  There are sports magazines interspersed with Maxims, and an occasional Garden and Gun.  Nothing hard-core, nothing raunchy. But definitely not Better Homes and Gardens. While the alcohol loosened my shoulders, the hot towel loosened the skin on my face.  The haircut was excellent; the shave was tight. I walked out much calmer and better looking than I did before.

As I was getting ready to leave, a man brought his three-year-old son in, and both of them were immediately loved on by the tattooed female barbers.  That fact was interesting to me; in any other traditionally male venue (strip club? cigar bar?) would be taboo for a young child.  Yet somehow this place was OK. 

Interestingly, it truly was OK.  The barbers fussed over him and made a big deal out of the kid, adding value to the time he spent with his dad. Sharing a powerful, male bonding experience.

What's the difference?

The difference between the two experiences really bothered me. There were two different barbershops, filling the same functions.  I mean, the obvious function was to get ears successfully lowered.  That happened in both places, much as it does every time I go to Super Cuts. What I came to realize, however, is that the secondary purpose was different, though.

In the traditional barbershop, you get a haircut, but you also fulfil a secondary purpose of integrating the community.  It was done in a testosterone charged location, but one that was safe.  Lies were swapped, tall tales told, family connections discussed (and, for the little ones, explained) and the connections made between and among the people who were there.  Fictive kinships are even established: the barbershop is where you learn that Uncle Earle is not your real uncle, but he is family anyway.

The MCB, on the other hand, caters to the individual.  It uses the same mechanisms - the trappings of testosterone activities - the magazines, the exclusively male clientele, and the soothing combination of drink, towel, and shave, to create a delightful escape.  But it does so to appeal to the individual.

As delightful as the trip to Modern Men was, I will be very unlikely to do it again, because the focus was on the pampering and treatment of the self.  The conversation took place between barber and client, rather than among the patrons of the barbershop.  There was no community; there was only individual slots.

And that, as best I can tell, is really the difference.  You don't make a reservation at a barbershop.  You don't schedule a traditional barbershop haircut between other activities.  The haircut is secondary to the community building - the integration of members of a place into a unified whole. At a MCB, you cannot be scheduled without an appointment.

What I thought had been the unifying characteristic - the exclusively male-ness of the place - ended up being simply a mechanism to addressing very different needs.  And as much as I would love to think that the community need would gain ground, I am not sure that it will.  I suspect we will get more isolated from the community, and focus on the needs... and desires of the individual.  And as we do, the traditional barbers will find less and less of a market to exploit.

At a time when we need it more than ever.

Closing Joke
An old farmer walks into a barbershop in Greenville, Mississippi for a shave and a haircut. He tells the barber he can't get all his whiskers off because his cheeks are wrinkled from age. The barber gets a little wooden ball from a cup on the shelf and tells the old farmer to put it inside his cheek to spread out the skin.

When he's finished, the farmer tells the barber that was the cleanest shave he'd had in years, but he wanted to know what would have happened if he had accidentally swallowed that little ball. The barber replied, just
bring it back in a couple of days like everyone else does.

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