For centuries, Barbers have been entrusted with the grooming needs of men from all walks of life. The history books tell us that in ancient Egyptian times, Barbers were the only people trusted to take sharp instruments close enough to Pharaoh to trim his beard. In the middle ages, Barbers were considered surgeons and dentists, and even in the early 1950’s through the 1980’s there was a Barbershop located in the West Wing of the White House which served the grooming needs of several Presidents. If you were to ask your Grandfather (if he’s still alive) about his relationship with his Barber, he’ll likely tell you that his Barber was more important to him than his local Pastor, because where his Barber heard everything, poor old Padre at best would’ve got the cliff notes version of the much less offending transgressions. It’s even been joked many times that if a man’s wife and Barber were both drowning and he could only save one of them, the obvious choice would be to save his Barber because finding a good Barber is a lot harder than finding a new wife.
So, what is it that has given Barber’s so much privy over the centuries, from Pharaohs to Presidents to Gramps? Can having a good Barber really make that much of a difference in a man’s life? Well, the truth be told, any Barber worth their salt should be able to give you a pretty darn good haircut, but their greater value comes not from the haircuts that they give, but rather from what they’re able to do while standing behind the chair during the haircut, which is their ability to befriend their clients by lending an unbiased ear to whatever their clients want to talk about and share. Now don’t get me wrong, this kind of trust between a man and his Barber doesn’t just happen overnight, it takes time for a new customer to build up a level of comfort and trust with a stranger standing behind them yielding sharp cutting implements, but the act of getting a haircut or shave from a Barber for the first time is one of the biggest acts of trust any man can take when it comes to spending their hard-earned money for a service that they’ll have little to no control over the outcome.
Sure, a new Barber will ask you how you want your hair cut, but that brief consultation doesn’t always ensure a quality haircut in the end. You can only sit there and hope that the instructions that you conveyed in the beginning weren’t lost in translation from when they left your lips to when the Barber hands you the mirror at the end of the service. But the shift in trust starts happening when the Barber begins to strike up small talk and start a conversation with you, which is when you start sharing personal information with this stranger when answering such questions as “So, where are you from?”, “What do you do for a living?”, “Do you have a family? Wife? Kids?”, and the ever popular, “So what’ve you got planned for the weekend?” Now, if the Barber did a good enough job on the haircut, then you’re more inclined to go back to see them again because the two of you have bridged the gap of unfamiliarity. If on your next visit the Barber can deliver consistent results AND they can remember one or two details about you that you mentioned the last time, then the Barber has earned your trust to come back again, and then again, and then yet again. It is this trust that makes subsequent haircut visits less about what kind of haircut you want and more about talking and catching up with the goings on in each other’s lives since the last time you saw each other. And while it may take time to build this relationship, trust and chemistry, your gut instinct will tell you whether you have the right Barber for you.
In the 2002 Ice Cube movie “Barbershop”, Cedric The Entertainer's character has a scene where his character, Eddie (the elder statesman in the shop), corrals all the young Barbers to show them how to properly do a straight razor shave after seeing one of them doing it incorrectly. As he calmly and methodically goes through the motions of the shave, he explains to them the difference between being a Barber in his days versus being a Barber, today:
“See, in my day, a barber was more than just somebody who sit around in a FUBU shirt with his drawers hanging all out. In my day, a barber was a counselor. He was a fashion expert. A style coach. Pimp. Just general all-around hustler. But the problem with y'all cats today, is that you got no skill. No sense of history. And then, with a straight face, got the nerve to want to be somebody. Want somebody to respect you. But it takes respect to get respect. Understand? See, I'm old. But, Lord willing, I'd be spared the sight of seeing everything that we worked for flushed down the drain by someone who don't know no better or care.”
That scene defines what the role of a Barber has been to men of all walks of life throughout the ages, because there are few places where men are forced to sit and be still and be engaged with someone for thirty to sixty minutes every month, someone who can potentially and positively influence their decisions, thoughts, mood, and outlook on life simply by using a haircut or a shave as the conduit to connect on a personal level. More importantly is the fact that the relationship that develops between a man and his Barber happens in a contained room, the Barbershop, in the presence of other likeminded men, be they lawyers, doctors, laborers, farmers, teachers, business owners, students, retirees, and anyone from clergymen to congressmen. This makes the Barbershop the equalizer of men, where none of your past or present struggles, challenges, trials, tribulations, mistakes, victories or failures, or even your color, creed, race or religion matters, ...everyone sitting in the Barbershop and in the Barber’s chair is, for that moment in time, “just one of the guys”.
There are very few places in this day and age where a man can go and get off the grid to momentarily escape the pressures, rigors and expectations of his life, be it the nonstop emails from his boss asking for updates on the project that’s already past due, his spouse asking him how they’re going to keep up with their mounting bills, figuring out how he’ll take care of his ailing parents, the losing record for his son’s little league team that he coaches, and the undeniable proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back for many men today, how horribly he’s performing in this year’s fantasy football league. The one place that offers men refuge from all these stresses is the Barbershop, and the person who can directly determine his mood once he leaves the Barbershop is his Barber. Yes, the haircut will make him look good as he leaves, but having a good Barber who will listen without judgement, and who will likely give words of encouragement and support, will have him leaving the Barbershop feeling better about himself too. In the past, I once heard the Barbershop referred to as “Switzerland” because Switzerland is known to be a country that promotes peace. In that respect, the Barbershop is a place for a man to find momentary peace from all the chaos in the world around him, and that in and of itself is enough to help promote a man to be a better version of himself.
In the late 1960’s, Barbering saw a great decline in popularity as shaggier hairstyles influenced by “The Beatles” became the rage in men’s hair. Barbers who were accustomed to short clipper haircuts simply weren’t adept to keeping up the with the long length style trends, so men forewent their Barbershop visits in favor of unisex salons. The problem was further compounded by the free-flowing hairstyles of the hippie movement in the 1970’s. Barbering as a trade faced difficult times back then, with many Barbershop’s being forced to close for business because men just weren’t visiting as frequently as they used to, if at all anymore, and because Barber’s hadn’t kept their skills relevant with the changing times. It’s hard to imagine a time when Barbershops were forced to go out of business as it meant that many communities were without a place for men to go for their regular fellowship, counselling, guidance, encouragement, and support. Without the Barbershop, where was the common man to go to be realigned to be a better father, a better husband, a better son, and a better contributing member of society without the help of his fellow man? How would this affect the next generation of men to follow him?
Barbering has seen a healthy resurgence in recent years due in part to shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, and with Hollywood’s leading men embracing short and classic hairstyles from the mid-century. But with this popularity has come an influx of male specific hair salons, franchises, and gimmick-oriented haircut shops that promise the old school Barbershop experience to their patrons. And yes, while by their fancy décor and ambience and menu of services they may replicate a Barbershop, the reality is that many of these places lack the heart and soul of the place your where your father and grandfather got their ears lowered. Some may offer a loyalty rewards program where every tenth haircut is free, or it’s free for every five new clients you refer, but within those ten haircut visits there are no debates with like-minded men over who is the greatest basketball player of all time or who will win the next big title fight, there is no support from like-minded men given to the family man trying to cope with his impending divorce, there is no advice given by like-minded men to a high school boy who is wants to ask his crush on a first date, and there is no example given by like-minded men to show boys how to grow up and conduct themselves as men. It is safe to assume that none of that will exists either for the five men you refer to get that rewards card punched all the way through, so is missing out on any of that really worth the price of that one free haircut?
In a day and age where you as a man have far more choices for your grooming needs than any Pharaoh ever did, just remember the next time you need a haircut that iron sharpens iron in the same way that like-minded men sharpen like-minded men. If having a good Barber and Barbershop to visit was good enough for Grandpa Fred and the generations of men before him, then it may just be the perfect option for you too. And when you do find yourself a good Barber, just make sure they know how to swim or at a minimum know how to tread water for a bit, because you’d hate to have find out how hard it’ll be to replace them if you ever have to choose to save them from drowning.
Mark-Jason Solofa has been a Barber for almost 10 years, and owns a 4 chair traditional barbershop located in Berkeley, CA. He is recognized within the Barbering community for promoting the customer service and fellowship elements of Barbering while motivating Barber's to curate and honor the trade.