When I was a kid my Dad used to take me to Ray’s Barbershop in Billings, Montana. It was a small brick building behind the grocery store that featured the requisite candy-stripped barber pole. Ray and his son manned the two barber chairs, ornate iron and red leather thrones which always seemed to be occupied. Like many barbers, Ray and his son were both bald (perhaps those that can’t play are destined to coach), and they wore bright white tunics.
The counter had two huge jars filled with combs soaking in a thick unnatural blue liquid. Often men would sit around the shop socializing and drinking Ray’s coffee (or something stronger later in the day), even though they weren’t there for a cut. Many guys also got a shave with a straight-edged razor, which Ray and his son would theatrically sharpen on a strap that hung from one of the chairs. I remember sneaking peeks at the Playboy and Oui Magazines that sat brazenly on the coffee table.
This was not a shop where men came for stylish cuts and blow drys with great-smelling hair gels. They primarily used electric razors and scissors to sculpt your hair into shapes that could only be admired by Marines and gym coaches. They slapped your face and neck with Electrosol after every cut. I often went home with bloody scabs at the tops of my ears where Ray carelessly nipped me. “Oops”, he would say when I winced. Dabbing me with a cotton swap he would always joke “guess I took a little too much off the top”. His barbershop was more of a was a men’s club; a guys-only place where men could be comfortable. The haircut was a bit secondary.
When I was in high school it suddenly became acceptable for men to go to hair salons. Sometimes these salons would have a big sign above the door that said “unisex” – which is a disturbing term in any context. Ray and his son were replaced by skinny guys and great-smelling, pretty girls with names like Amber, Tiffany, and Star. Sometimes their hard breasts would bump into my shoulder, which really trumped Ray’s hairy elbows in my face. They hovered over my head with flying hands, using all kinds of tools to shape my hair, while often chewing gum. Sometimes they would shampoo me twice. After the cut they would always attempt to sell me hair products, which to this day makes me uncomfortable. Ray never tried to sell me Brill Cream.
Like most men, for some reason I made a quick and complete transition to these unisex shops, and barbershops began to disappear; a victim of the huge worldwide metrosexual movement. I embraced the hair salon. As I got older, when I got my hair cut I was usually offered white wine, and surrounded by women with aluminum foil circling their heads that appeared to allow them to communicate with with women in other worlds. Some of the ladies would have their hair soaked in foul-smelling industrial chemicals to alter the color which gave the entire salon a flammable quality. Instead of overhearing conversations about fishing trips and baseball and golf games, I would evesdrop on stories about errant boyfriends, the “bitch at work”, bad dates, and stories from mothers that knew entirely too much about their daughters.
In the waiting area the tables were devoid of any of the magazines I saw at Ray’s. No “Field and Stream”, and “Outdoor Life”; and certainly nothing with topless women, unless they were anorexic models with tiny breasts featured in a new fashion ad. Instead, there were publications with stories about dating, celebrity diets, and tips on how to rekindle your sex life. And for the last 25 years I accepted what I assumed was this inevitable disappearance of the barber shop, even though I believed that each of the sexes deserved their own grooming sanctuaries.
But a few years ago I while in New York I wandered into a place called John Allens (www.johnallans.com), and I discovered the wonderful resurgence of men’s barber shops. John Allens, which has four locations in New York, and shops in Toronto and Chicago, blends the best of Ray’s and the unisex shops – a place for men where you can actually get a decent haircut. This is the ultimate man cave; most of the locations have full bars and even pool tables. When you check in they offer you a stiff drink. The clients are all men, and not to sound sexist, but pretty women give you a quality haircut, while other pretty women give you a manicure, shave, facial, or other grooming service. The place is all dark wood like a good gentleman’s club, and there is not a Cosmo Magazine anywhere in the place.
HairM in Portland (www.hairmgrooming.com) is kind of the West Coast alternative to John Allens. With two locations, one in downtown Portland and one in Beaverton, they also have a gentleman’s club feel, and the requisite bar and pretty women to make you handsome.
Both John Allen’s and Hair M seem to particularly cater to the “young turk” crowd – the 20 to 40 year old professional guy that particularly enjoys the fact that they are being coiffed by beautiful women. Though I would always prefer an attractive woman over bald Ray, I tend to be more motivated by the quality of the cut, and if you don’t mind having a man barber, there are many other great alternatives.
Y-Chrome (www.y-chromebarbering.com) is a fairly new barbershop in downtown Portland. While I have never been in the shop I walk by it frequently. It has a very nice barbershop ambiance, offering a more limited menu of haircuts and shaves at very reasonable prices from both men and women barbers.
For the last several years I have been a fan of products from The Art of Shaving, and I was pleased a few weeks ago to find they have opened a small store in downtown Portland with a tiny barbershop in the back. Elijah Mack, the sole barber, holds “master barber” status and offers a great haircut and shave in a nicely appointed mini-barbershop in the back of the shop. I was suprised to learn that The Art of Shaving is owned by P&G, so due to corporate policy they can’t offer you a drink, but you will get a great haircut in a nice environment at a very reasonable price.
And my new favorite shop is Truman’s Gentleman’s Grooming (www.trumans-nyc.com) in midtown New York. This is a big, beautiful shop that exhudes manliness. When I checked in last week they offered me a drink from a full bar, and the table in the waiting area was filled with my favorite reading material. They took my shoes and returned them with a full shine. I was thrown back in an old fashioned barber chair, and for the next two hours I was in their hands, receiving an incredible straight-razor shave, a terrific haircut, and a manicure, all at a reasonable price by NY standards.
Of course, the above are only a sampling of the high-end barbershop craze. There are great shops in almost every city in the country, with more popping up all the time.