BARBER SHOP: an endangered species of enterprise where men get their hair cut

barber shop

This is going to be another of those reminiscent posts.  I started out to write about the helix, which will now come at another time. It led me to the once-familiar barber’s pole which is known internationally as a sign for a barber shop.   In most places around the world, it is a red and white helix that signifies blood and bandages.  In the United States, however, our super patriotism has added the blue strip to signify our national colors.

Having stumbled upon the barber’s pole, I found myself reminiscing about the days of my childhood when I would go into the barber shop on a regular basis to get sheared.  It cost 50 cents when I was really young, but by the time I was in high school inflation had set in, and it cost a dollar.*

Mr. LaMere was my barber when I was a kid, but he became old (like most people) and I soon found my way to a barber who would become  my long time friend, Joe Schiavoni, who was the archetype  for barbers.  Talkative, sensitive, knowledgeable about sports, and not a half-bad barber.  There was always a waiting line at the shop, which was one of the reasons we went there.  He had the best comic book collection in town.  Always the latest editions, and those classic ones you’d pay a pretty penny for today if you could find them with a cover intact.  I wasn’t allowed to bring the comic book to “the chair” with me, however, so I’d stay a few minutes after the cut to finish it so I could find out if Superman overcame his Kryptonite dosage.   If it was busy, Joe (or Frank) wouldn’t hesitate to shoo me off, so new customers could sit and read Field and Stream,   Life Magazine, or The Saturday Evening Post.    The barber shop was as much a reading room as is Starbucks today.

The time in the chair was amazing.   Joe would wet me down, using a white ceramic bottle (like an Old Spice bottle) and rub in the water thoroughly.  I loved the feel of his strong fingers on my scalp.  (Closest thing to a massage I had had at that time.)   Then he wold begin with the clippers.  You have to remember that almost every boy in those days wore a crew cut, or a “flat top.”  He began at the front and swooped the electronic marvels over the top of my head before attacking the sides.  There was never much conversation about what I wanted.  Joe made the decisions unless you told him “you wanted it longer or shorter.”  Even then there was some barber discretion involved.

When my head was pushed forward to allow him to clip the back I could see it there…the word I have never forgotten.  Oster.  The attached foot “stool, ” which my feet didn’t get near in the early days, was made by the Oster Corporation (which now makes primarily animal shearing equipment) and their name was cleverly embedded in the iron lattice of the foot stool.  I must have already started on my wordsmith career at the time, because I would stare at the word and try to determine what it meant, where the name came from, and how many feet had stepped on that part of the chair since it was made.  The letters didn’t get worn down; they were meant to be permanent.

When he had finished shearing me, Joe would take out his straight razor, which was securely protected in a cloth-lined drawer.  He lifted the leather strop at the side of the chair and flourished the blade against it, testing its sharpness against a finger.  Then he would go to his Oster machine on the counter and secure just a dollop of warm, soothing shaving cream which he would apply to the neck line and my “sideburns”  only.   I have fantasized about having a full shave at a men’s salon, but have never taken the opportunity.  The thought of it is a throwback to that 30 seconds when he would smear the shaving cream on me and scrape it away.

Then…the crowning moment…Joe would splash aftershave on my neck where he had shaved.  It was a scent that I can smell even as I write this.  Those 20 minutes or more in the chair featured a continual conversation about what was going on in my life, school, my family, or anything else I chose to raise.  Joe was part family therapist and child psychologist, in addition to being a great barber.

Joe’s  shop has gone the way of most barber shops today.   Oh, there are remnants here and there, but they are either chop shops, run by former military men who insist upon everyone having a military cut, or “big box” shops with 12 barbers and a McDonald’s-type process.  The barbers hardly talk with you anymore.  I’ve seen a few traditional shops open where you can get a hair cut or styling, hot shave, massage, manicure, pedicure, and buy cigars which can be smoked in the back room.  I heard of one with a liquor license where you could have a drink while you were there.  I get my haircut at a women’s salon, where Sue is a very good barber.The college guys flock to her shop.

But Superman and the Green Hornet are not to be found.  Neither is Joe Schiavoni’s barber shop.


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* It’s not uncommon now for men to pay anywhere from $15 to $45 or $50 for a hair cut.   Stylists in larger cities cost even more.

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