Paleo Retiree writes:
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:
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.
- A nice celebration of the American barbershop from The Art of Manliness.
- An actual barber checks in.
- One of the greatest books I’ve ever read about classicism (what it is, where it comes from, how it works) is this not-long, eye-and-brain-opening thing by Hugh Honour. It does an amazing job of vaporizing the romanticism-based illusions many of us carry around about art and culture.