My very first haircut took place in a barber shop next to our local bank in my small home town. The barber, “Red” Young, was an uncle on my father’s side. I hated the experience. I felt like I was being mauled. The itch of tiny hair clippings on my shoulders, back and chest (how did it get that far down?) drove me crazy. When I got home, I stripped my shirt off and hosed down until I felt relief. Funny, the things you remember growing up.
In subsequent years, I never became fond of itchy hair bits, but did feel an ever increasing affinity for that type of old-time barber shop from my youth. The shops invariably have the old, heavy steel chairs, massive things that require a real man to pump higher. I doubt those are made or sold anymore. In their place, we see plastic, lightweight chairs in what became known as “unisex shops” or “salons”. Back in the day, beauty salons were exclusively female establishments, and barber shops were for men.
The barber’s waiting room typically had a bunch of old chrome restaurant chairs, wooden benches or other salvaged seating. Individual work stations would be similar in equipment and furnishings to the hair salons of the day, but the shop would be located in older buildings with worn counters, the overall look just a bit shabby. Each station would have scissors, combs, aftershave, and a tin of talc with a neck brush. The smell of aftershave and perfumed talc was ever-present. What would certainly be absent from the scene was a cashier and a rack of various shampoos, conditioners and other such products for sale. What was sold in a barber shop was haircuts and in some instances, straight razor shaves, nothing else – other than a bunch of friendly banter, and a joke now and then.
I have a hard time describing the atmosphere. It had a feel and aroma that you don’t find anywhere else. You would rarely see a woman, unless she brought her young boys in for a haircut. There isn’t any discrimination going on, it’s just a man’s domain that is not in the cross-hairs of women (pun intended), wanting to be part of what has traditionally been a boring male activity. I mean, few women want a close-cut hair style, and never a shave.
I travel out of my way now to get my cut at Frank’s Old Town Barber Shop in Red Oak. It can be crowded at times, with men and boys stationed around the room, old magazines laid out on the coffee table, and big screen TV on. No matter how many are in the waiting room, there is no need to take a number, everyone knows their place in the que. Conversation dominates the scene. Politics, sports, cars and trucks, and other topics are kept civil, which I attribute to the nature of the barber shop experience. It’s like there is a flag of truce in regards to dangerous topics.
Where would you find a hair salon where you could get a straight razor shave with a hot towel? It’s a luxury only a man can enjoy, and Frank supplies it. No matter where I’ve moved over the decades, I’ve be able to find a traditional men’s shop within driving distance.
Men, if you haven’t experienced the luxury of an old fashioned barber shop, treat yourself to the unique experience.