Retro Pleasures: A Shave and a Haircut

Paleo Retiree writes:


The proud and good craftsmen at Xtreme Cuts: Yuri, David and Robert

Thank god the era of the men’s hair stylist is over. Hair stylists, eh? Fussiness, “styling products,” girly smells … It seemed like part of the worldwide conspiracy to make men as vain, as vapid and as anxiety-ridden as too many women are. Yet, for a couple of decades, what really were our options? Traditional barbers were growing scarcer, and the ones who remained in business seemed to lose more of their skills with every passing year. So, off to the hair stylist it was.

But since the late ’90s the traditional barbershop has been making a comeback. (I shared a few snapshots of a genuine old-time smalltown barbershop here.) And since my trusted and excellent barber Frank — is there an HBD explanation for why so many good haircutters are of Italian descent? and why so many of them are named Frank? — mysteriously disappeared three years ago (one day, I moseyed over to his shop, found the building being demolished, asked what had become of Frank … and no one could tell me), I’ve been sampling the work of many barbers and many shops, both in NYC and in California.

Until very recently, though, I hadn’t found any barbers or shops I wanted to revisit. I’ve been left, in fact, with more in the way of sociological observations than good haircuts or pleasant experiences. As far as I can tell, the current batch of barbershops fall mainly into two categories. On the one hand, there’s the fast-and-dirty crowd. You drop by, you thumb through a magazine until you’re called, and you’re out of there 15 minutes later.

Upsides: speed, matter-of-factness, among-men-ness, cheapness. I’ve had some passable haircuts that only cost me twelve bucks, and I can’t deny that inexpensiveness has its appeal. Downsides: you’ve got to have a much bigger tolerance for gabbing about sports than I do (is it just me, or has the culture grown even more rabid about sports than it was in, say, 1970?); the places themselves tend to be loud and cluttered, and lit by flourescent tubes; and the haircuts tend towards the dismayingly generic. Skills and styles are generally hyper-limited. (You get to choose from maybe three main cuts.) Buzzers are used much more than scissors are; sides and back of the head tend to get buzzed super-short whether you want them to be or not. If you enjoy feeling treated like one of the herd, and/or if you want to look like a thick-necked hiphop-and-basketball fan who pumped a lot of iron a decade ago, these are places for you.

The other main class of current barbers, in my experience, is the upscale crowd: barbers and shops that have pounced on the retro-barbering trend and turned it into a self-conscious old-school brand, offering dark colors, luxurious leather-ish chairs, quieter TV sets, more elaborate treatments … You’re meant to feel like a guy-guy who’s visiting a guys’ club for some highly-ritualized guy-guy treatments: hot towels, straight razors … At one place I was even served a shot of whiskey.

Upsides: I find the trad barbering ritual to be a genuine pleasure; I love the presence of manly tools and scents; scissors are used much more than buzzers are; the atmosphere is quiet and unhurried; the repertoire of available haircuts tends to be relatively large … The whole package really can make you feel like a real man spending part of his day takin’ care of a real man’s business. Let us not laugh at that, by the way. Masculinity has its dignity, and it deserves its fair share of respect.

Downsides: price, price, price, and occasional excesses of self-consciousness. At some of these upscale places I’ve had to cough up more cash than I used to shell out at hair-stylin’ salons. It grates too that some of the dudes behind the businesses seem to see the barbering renaissance in the same way too many bar and coffeeshop owners see the cocktail and coffee revivals — as an excuse to offer something a little fancier than they usually would at double the old price. The commitment-to-craft vs. commitment-to-fleecing-the-customer ratio can get very disagreeable. Plus, sadly: excellent work NOT guaranteed. One of my cuts wound up being a wedge-shaped, piled-high-on-top, Tintin thing. It made me look not just like an idiot but like a retiree idiot trying to look like a fashionable 30 year old idiot. This despite my very eloquent request for a very different kind of cut. Shouldn’t a classic experience result in a classic sort of look?

So, until very recently, my feelings about the barbershop renaissance have been more mixed than I’d like them to be. Then luck finally started to strike. Out in California, I warily gave this place a try and … instant bliss. An unpretentious-yet-deluxe space and an expert, classic haircut. The extras were really something too. The straight-razor shave was a thrill — nothing quite like putting your neck in the hands of someone wielding a big, dangerous blade. (Every man should have at least one straight-razor shave.) And the “hot towel treatment” was a revelation — one of the most satisfying “treatment” sorts of things I’ve ever submitted to. Although Jessica, my barber, is as sweet, young, smart, and full of fizz as can be, she takes part in the men’s-club atmosphere very competently, and she understands better than many women do that men thrive on firmness more than on fuss. (“I bet you’ve gotten a lot of marriage proposals here,” I said to her as she finished up the face-massage part of the treatment. “I have,” she said.) Given the quality of the work, and especially considering the location of the shop (Montecito, a hyper-ritzy town next to Santa Barbara, a hyper-ritzy small city), the prices are more than pleasing.

Back here in NYC, I’ve worked my way through more than a dozen barbershops over the past few years, never feeling more than semi-satisfied. But last week I finally found a place worthy of being a Frank-replacement. It’s called Xtreme Cuts, and it’s a great, great shop. It’s in a tiny space in the stylish downtown neighborhood of SoHo, and it’s been around for a little over a year. Appointments are taken and respected, though you’re also likely to have luck as a drop-in if you come by midweek, or at oddball times in the middle of the day.

Despite its size Xtreme Cuts delivers all the club-style satisfactions a man could want: manly scents and tools; non-corporate lighting; the murmur of men talking about business, what a lot of trouble women are, and — this being NYC — restaurants. (Interesting note: during the hour I was there I overheard all of one mention of children.) The World Cup was on the TV screen, but the sound was low and the barbers didn’t impose sports-yak.

The place’s three craftsmen — Robert (the owner), Yuri and David, all of them from Uzbekistan — practice their trade expertly, as well as with confidence, humor and quiet dignity. They command a wide range of styles, and they’re capable of adapting to the specifics of every client’s particular neck, hair, forehead, skull and requests. Bonus points for complete and utter lack of rip-off artistry and hipster self-consciousness.

The concept is clearly “a classy, trad barber experience at a very reasonable price” — Robert understands that the barber experience isn’t a satisfying one if the prices are out of line. For $20, Yuri gave me exactly the haircut I was looking for, and then he finished the process off with a couple of minutes working the kinks out of my shoulders and neck with this classic thing. Talk about a restful, satisfying and finally invigorating experience!

BTW, one of the better uses I’ve found for my still-relatively-new iPhone is carrying around photos of the kind of haircut I’d like a barber to give me. No need for floundering attempts at verbal descriptions. (Are you any good at describing the haircut you’re hoping to get? I’m certainly not.) Yuri took a quick look at my screen, nodded his head and set to work. Here’s one of the photos I showed him:


And here’s the cut Yuri gave me:

haircut01 Now, I may rival Anthony Bourdain’s roguishness only in my dreams, and god knows we’d all look better in the hands of worldclass stylists and photographers. But ignore all that and focus on the haircut. That’s an excellent job of wrangling a headful of hard-to-tame, wavy, gray hair into rumpled, run-your-fingers-through-it shape. And no week or two of letting the haircut “grow in” needed. Let me re-emphasize that particular miracle: I walked out of the shop with my hair in attractively windblown shape. That’s a major accomplishment in itself, I think. Plus, let me repeat: 20 bucks.

The headline on this posting is a little misleading, by the way. (I can seldom resist an easy cliché.) I didn’t get the shave — I didn’t need one. But even so I couldn’t resist trying a little something extra, so I indulged in the facial treatment. What a treat it was. In its general outlines it was very similar to what Jessica delivers in Montecito: hot towels, mud and emollients; mint, Ben-Gay, and astringent sensations and scents; all of it finished off with a vigorous face and scalp massage. (Is there a classic-barbers’ pattern book where this treatment is spelled out in detail? If so: great!) In any case, the treatment at Xtreme Cuts had its own nice features. One of them was the drying-minty-mud-with-a-hair-dryer stage. The combo of warm air, cooling sting, and contracting mud could have gone on for an hour. And Yuri, though he can’t compete with Jessica in the pressing-up-against-me curviness department, and I’m glad he doesn’t try, has his own satisfying, no-homo way of delivering each step of the treatment. I don’t generally think of myself as someone who devotes a lot of time to unwinding in the company of other men, but I may need to adjust my self-image a bit.

Is it getting old that’s making me more open to classic and retro pleasures? Or maybe I’ve always been a bit of a fuddy duddy. The Question Lady — who likes style-fussin’, chic fashions, scene-making, and aesthetic experimentation for its own sake a lot more than I do — would certainly endorse the latter theory. And who knows, maybe she’s right. Trace one branch of my family back far enough and you’ll discover some Revolutionary War-era Tories who left America for Canada when the shooting commenced. (Took them a hundred years to return to the States too.) Hard to get more conservative than that. I’d venture, though, that the real reason I’m responding as happily as I am to retro cocktails and retro barbershops — the good ones, that is — is that they’re cultural forms that really do resonate with something deep in many men.


About Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.
This entry was posted in The Good Life and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Retro Pleasures: A Shave and a Haircut

  1. Fenster says:

    Fun post.

    When in Boston, you can try Big Dog.


  2. agnostic says:

    Guys seem to be more willing to spend the time and money on hair-styling when chicks are boy-crazy. In that thrill-seeking mood, girls are more turned on by the dude’s visual excitement factor. Hair is always on display, hence one of the most important things they attend to.

    Hey, not a bad pay-off for the occasional visit to a stylist, and some minimal regular maintenance throughout the day with a comb or hairspray.

    But it’s not the Roaring Twenties or the Go-Go Eighties anymore, so women are more likely to size up a man’s earning potential — dads instead of cads (in the words of Draper, Harpending, and Belsky). In the Midcentury, she expected enough to raise a good-sized family in a small Cape Cod house in a Levittown subdivision, while today’s climate of rising inequality and status-striving, she expects a McMansion or better in a wealthy neighborhood, with or without children in tow.

    And yet in both periods, exciting looks were not at the front of their minds when it came to choosing a mate. Men responded by dialing down how stylish they looked compared to just a few decades earlier, and took a more no-nonsense, utilitarian approach to getting their hair cut.


  3. agnostic says:

    As for the social atmosphere inside, I’m willing to tolerate a little more ironic, self-conscious hipterism if that’s what draws in girls who cut men’s hair. I notice little difference between salons and hipster barbershops regarding the girls who work there.

    It’s not pervy concern either (well, maybe just a tad). If I wanted to pay for girls to touch me, I’d go to a strip club. Or hit up a dance club and not have to pay anything.

    Rather, here’s what appeals to me about the girl who cut’s men’s hair:

    – Young, cute. If middle-aged, enjoying their attractiveness-for-their-age, not coming off as desperate cougar types. (It’s humbling when most of your co-workers are under-30.)

    – Puts effort into looking pleasing and ornamented because they get a kick out of making life more fun around them, not in order to manipulate men into doing their bidding.

    – Engaging and sociable, but not gossipy, bitchy, and sassy like (some of) the other female hair stylists, whose customers are women or gay men, nor even as much as the average human female. How could they keep normal male customers otherwise?

    – Related to above: able to talk about a broad enough range of topics that there will be overlapping interests with guys, not simply babies, celebs, and that jealous bitch who’s trying to sabotage my career.

    – Touchy-feely, not physically awkward.

    – Thoughtful and attentive, listening and responding, not hearing “yadda-yadda” when you’re talking and just doing whatever they want to anyway like a glib little brat.

    It’s rare to find an atmosphere filled with girls who know how to interact with guys, or with guys just being guys (remember how they used to stock Playboy magazine at the barber’s?). But of the two, I find the socially non-retarded girl to be in far shorter supply than guys acting like guys. That’s the main reason why I’m passing up the trad barber thing, as appealing as it may be in all other respects.


    • Yeah, that’s a good description of the type. I’d only add that the galz who cut hair at hipster-retro barbershops seem to me to be a little better reconciled to men and their tastes than the galz who cut hair at hair salons. Maybe it’s because they’re conscious of being on foreign territory?


    • Kevin O'Keeffe says:

      “I notice little difference between salons and hipster barbershops regarding the girls who work there.”

      If women/girls work there, then its really not a barber shoppe. In my opinion, at any rate.


  4. ironrailsironweights says:

    I go to a fairly basic, traditional barber shop. All of the barbers are men, and all of them are Turkish. Some of them might be related to one another. It’s nothing fancy, but I always get a decent haircut at a decent price. Can’t ask for anything more.



    • I wonder if Uzbekis and Turks are taking the place of Italians in the hair-styling and especially barbering field … How’d you find the place you patronize? After trying many other ones out?


      • ironrailsironweights says:

        It has a highly visible location right on the main road through town, pretty hard to miss.

        A couple of barbershops a bit further away advertise themselves as authentically Italian, so I guess there’s still some cachet attached to the Italian barber.



  5. slumlord says:

    The guy who cuts my hair is an ex plasterer and got into hairdressing after he married a hairdresser. He actually did the plastering in my old place.
    He’s a good barber and a good plasterer. Just thought I’d mention it.

    Hard to get more conservative than that. I’d venture, though, that the real reason I’m responding as happily as I am to retro cocktails and retro barbershops — the good ones, that is — is that they’re cultural forms that really do resonate with something deep in many men.

    Some of the older stuff in my opinion simply is better. When you’ve got something that’s just right then innovation detracts rather than adds to the experience. I think age makes one appreciate things more in a sensual manner while youth is focused on novelty. In a society that is heavily youth focused novelty tends to dominate.

    As you get older I think you begin to “extract” more from every experience. Food, which previously was just food, becomes a sensual experience. Art, which was previously decoration suddenly can move. I think with age, in some, comes refinement. The reason why the barber shop appeals is because it appeals to more pleasures than just novelty. So yes, it does resonate deeply with our natures.


  6. Captain Tripps says:

    Two of the best barbers I ever had were Middle Eastern. My barber when I lived in Turkey for a year was fabulous. Very meticulous; he would take 25-30 minutes but it was well worth it. He had the most interesting technique for trimming my ear hairs. He would dip a long cotton tip swab in alcohol, light it on fire, and very quickly singe the hairs off with quick, gentle taps. The other guy was an ethnic Kurd who emigrated to Germany and was there when I lived there for three years. He had the most delicate hands; you could barely tell he was cutting, but the result was superb.

    However, my best barber by far was an older Korean lady (early 50s?) who was still very beautiful at her age. Not only were her hands very delicate, but she knew exactly how to cut my hair the same way I liked it every time I went after the first time. Her price was $15, but she was so good, I started giving her double ($30). Immediately after I started the tip, she finished the haircut with a 5-10 minute scalp and shoulder massage that made me want to go take a nap! She was my barber for 10 years, but she recently retired so I’m out of luck.

    Now I’m trying to find a suitable replacement (if that’s even possible!), and am patronizing the local Sports Clips up the street. The girls are (mostly) decent and friendly, but I’m more than old enough to be their Dad, so I don’t relate. But I can get the head and neck massage along with my cut for $22.


    • The massage counts for a lot.

      The one “hair stylist” I really liked was a Japanese guy I used years and years ago. Beyond meticulous — it felt like he paid attention to every single hair on my head. I looked very sleek when he was done with me, and the cut lasted for a good long time too. No massage, though.


  7. PrytaneumFreeFood says:

    A pleasure to read.

    The barbershop is a special place, even a somewhat sacred place for us men. It takes a lot of scouting and then some diplomatic skill to suss out a barber. But pleasant smells, man-among-man atmosphere, and other quiet-little-dignities are ample rewards.

    We men live for, I say without exaggeration. preening and peacocking around. About our appearance, sure; about our temperaments, absolutely (we’re no different from our ancestors and they lived damn well, thank you very much); and about how much trouble those fussing peahens are causing us all, ecstatically.


    • It really is a somewhat sacred place, isn’t it? Or can (and should) be. You’re reminding myself of that good African-American movie “Barbershop.” Very companionable and funny, and a nice recognition of the role that barbershops can play in a community.


      • PrytaneumFreeFood says:

        I sincerely enjoyed Barbershop, et. al. but like you say the movies locate their shop in a strong, tightly-knit neighborhood/community — not the sort of shop I have access to, sadly. Yes, sacred. But also celebrated, like a cherished park, common field, or public-art project.

        I empathize with searching hard for a barber/stylist talented (in demeanor too) who doesn’t spoil the experience by charging too much. The sacred quality is grooming for the world in the many ways we groom, the shrewd feeling that comes from thriftiness, bantering around with easy-breezy confidence — love the line about marriage proposals, btw, and getting to craft our image — fun photo you picked out).


  8. peterike says:

    “Brideshead Revisited” gave some good barber in this scene.


  9. LAist shares its favorite barbershops; I should check out one or two:


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  11. Kevin O'Keeffe says:

    The first time I ever got a straight-razor shave was in the summer of ’91 (I was taking the bus from San Diego to Wilmington, North Carolina), and while in Dallas, I ducked into an old-time barbershop about a mile or so from Dealy Plaza. And the Southern, old-man barbers were all STILL talking about the Kennedy assassination, and, oddly, how JFK favored what is known as “a razor cut,” which is apparently when you have your hair cut by a straight razor (and which I suspect is a well-nigh inobtainable service, in the Year of Our Lord 2014, but please, by all means, someone prove me wrong). I could have gotten a razor cut that day, but I had no idea that anyone I ever subsequently mentioned it to would look at me as if I were an escaped mental patient (hence I failed to avail myself of this rare opportunity, alas). These days, its almost impossible to get even a straight razor shave (here in Sioux Falls, which is a city of somewhat less than 200K; still doable in larger cities, I gather), but I’ve heard a rumor that there’s still one obscure shoppe on the low-rent end of town that does it. I plan to go there eventually (by which point, they’ll doubtless be closed).


    • Some ladies I know get razor cuts to achieve the tousled “bed-head” look. It’s not an unusual thing at all. Because the razor chops hair at an angle, it gives a different look than a scissor cut.


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  13. I dropped by Xtreme Cuts on Friday but they were booked for the day, so I made an appointment and returned on Sunday. Great place. David helped me and it was one of the best haircuts I’ve ever had. The price has increased to $22, but it’s still a bargain for that neighborhood. Hell, given the overall quality of the treatment, it would’ve been a great price back when I lived in Orange County.

    Here they are mentioned in a Business Insider piece:

    Liked by 1 person

  14. JV says:

    Best haircut I ever got was at a place called Daddy’s deep in the Castro District of SF. I was housesitting for my cousin and his partner and needed a cut, Daddy’s was the highest rated in the area. Staffed by burly, hirsute gay men (bears) in their 40s and 50s. Not only was it a great cut but the guy was super fast. Got the hot towel treatment as well. I think it was 25 bucks, money well spent. I wondered whether, as “bears,” their appreciation of masculine looking men as sex objects made them better barbers. Maybe? At any rate, haven’t found anyone, even at the new full-service barbershops in my area, that was as good.

    The return of the full-service barbershop is of course, the return of traditionally manly pleasures and skills. Much has been written about all that, and I don’t have anything new to add to it. But I’m sure glad it’s coming back. Oh, and a lot of that work is being done by the much-maligned hipster set, so maybe we should all malign them just a little less.

    Liked by 1 person

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