I know my posts have been very retrospective lately, but that’s because I appreciate the finer things in life, the older that I get. The truth is, not every progression of modern society has always been for the best. I’m sure that fact doesn’t elude most people. The loss of "Mom and Pop" shops is one of the most saddening changes of our culture, with barber shops being one of those fatalities.
When I was a boy, my father used to take me to one of the several local barber shops for my haircut. The barber’s name was Ginger. I remember him, fondly. He was a small man, slender, had white hair even then and seemed ageless. His rich European accent made it difficult for me to understand him when I was very young, but I soon grew accustomed to it, especially being a first generation Canadian of German immigrants, because this meant that I was exposed to a great deal of broken English, with the rich European cadence and sharply articulated consonants of my German relatives.
More than 20 years later, I still meet Ginger around town, from time to time. He looks just the same and is as friendly as ever. He always remembers me and asks about both my father and my sister, every time we meet. The reason we stopped seeing him in the first place, was because my sister eventually got her hair dressing license and of course, she cut our hair for several years after that. Time marched on and eventually Ginger retired. I still pass his old shop and smile when I think about it. The friendly, personal service we received from him is unmatched by the commercialized entities of today.
I admit, that for the past decade I have rarely gone anywhere but chain stores to get my haircut, especially when I have a coupon for a discount. The problem is of course, the service is very inconsistent. My haircut couldn’t be simpler, now. I only require clippers, a number three and request they leave a little extra at the front. Yet, I usually leave somewhat disappointed. I always go straight home, use a razor to clean up my neck and sideburns, wash my neck and shoulders, rinse my hair and change my shirt because of the remaining clippings. There was a time, I didn’t have to do any of that.
I experienced my first real treat when overseas, working for four months in the Philippines. I went to a barber shop in one of their local malls and the barber asked if I had ever had a haircut by a Filipino barber, which I hadn’t. He smiled. I was in for a treat. In countries where labour is cheap and skilled workers are easy to find, quality often rises to the top. That’s why in the Philippines, skills like old-school barbering, tailoring and real shoe makers still exist.
My haircut took an excessively long time, but that’s because it was more than just a clip and run. He started with clippers, followed up with scissors to eliminate the strays and a washing of my scalp. In between each stage he would massage my scalp, neck, shoulders, upper back, arms and hands. He used a razor blade, not a straight razor or electric razor to clean up my neck, sideburns and around my face. His skill was apparent and the experience was amazing. I left 45 minutes after I arrived, relaxed and with one of the best haircuts of my life. The price for all of this? ₱250, which was about $5 Canadian, at the time. I left a ₱100 tip, which the cashier tried to refuse several times until I explained that I was very pleased with the service and would not take no for an answer. I returned there twice more before returning home. I will never forget those haircuts, but I also knew I would never again get to enjoy the luxury of that type of experience, certainly not in North America.
This week, I was driving through town and saw a new barber shop open near my home, with a large sign that said $10 haircuts. The cheapskate in me took notice. In desperate need of a haircut, I walked there yesterday morning and was the first client. An elderly Spanish woman asked me to sit down and asked me what I needed. I gave her my usual instructions and asked her how long she had been open. She explained that she had been at this location for just under two years and that men were always surprised it was a woman barber. Mary, as she introduced herself, preferred cutting men’s hair because it was faster and simpler, but she does women’s, as well. I laughed and said I wondered before I walked through the door if the barber would be a man or woman, myself. While I wasn’t as shocked as many of her patrons have been, I asked her if there was a female iteration of the word barber, such as barberette. My joke fell flat.
We talked about the corner store that used to be in her present location, a mainstay of the community for several decades until they closed. I told her I was happy to see that barber shops were not a thing of the past and she indicated that she had been a barber herself for over 30 years.
Then, she told me an interesting story. About a year earlier, a man entered her shop and got a haircut, chatting with her as she did so. When she was done, he asked for a comb and the mirror. He looked over her work very carefully. He explained that he had been a barber for over 30 years and was very pleased with her work. He didn’t tell her this until she was done, because he didn’t want to make her nervous. He offered her his old barber shop sign, with its red and white diagonal stripes, that now adorns the outside of her business. She didn’t get his name, but described him as a short, slender European with white hair. As you may have already guessed, it was Ginger. I smiled at knowing that the man my father and I trusted for so many years had given her his seal of approval.
In what seemed like only minutes, she was done. I was thoroughly impressed with how fast she worked. I often wondered why my haircut, which should be one of the simplest to complete, often took 20 minutes or more at the chain stores. She got rid of the hair from my neck and face, but didn’t take the barber cloak off me just yet. To my surprise she proceeded to put shaving cream on my neck and sideburns and use a razor to clean them up. She finished up while running hot water in the sink beside the barber chair, took out a warm, wet towel and quickly washed the stray hairs from my head, massaging the scalp, wiping off my neck and shoulders and eliminating my need to do this later. A quick check in the mirror demonstrated that the cut was exactly what I asked for, even and neat. I was thrilled. I gladly paid for my hair cut, with a generous gratuity and told her I would be back with my son the next time we needed a cut and was on my way.
Those simplest of tasks, a warm towel, a razor and some shaving cream; a shop without a dozen chairs and high employee turnover; a skilled professional who pays attention to detail and some friendly conversation make all the difference. It’s the type of experience every haircut should still have, even in today’s fast paced world. Anyone who hasn’t experienced a proper haircut at a real barber shop is missing out. I hope Mary’s barber shop lasts a very long time.