Barber Shops

Americana, Traditions
on January 21, 2007
Mark M. Hancock Robert Gresham clips Ryan Fullen's locks in Baytown, Texas.

Jimmie Jackson, 71, settles into the chair at Gino’s Barber Shop in Jackson, Calif., and doesn’t say a word about the haircut he wants. After all, he’s been coming to Gino’s since Harry S. Truman was president.

Besides, Gino Ricci doesn’t offer any newfangled hairstyles; he only cuts “short” and “shorter.” “I do a standard haircut and a ‘high and tight,’” says Ricci, 83, wrapping a plastic cape around Jackson. “And a guy who asks for a mirror while I’m cutting his hair is trouble.”

Gino’s Barber Shop on Main Street in Jackson (pop. 3,989) is an old-fashioned holdout and hangout—a manly man’s barbershop that buzzes with the sound of electric clippers and barbershop banter.

“I don’t cut ladies’ hair, but one day a lady came in here,” Ricci says. “I said, ‘You’ve got a beautiful head of hair and I’d hate to ruin it.’ I said, ‘When I run my hands through a woman’s head of hair, I lose all control.’ She was up and shot out of here.”

Jackson chuckles, though it’s likely that he’s heard the story before in his 55 years of sitting in the barber chair.

“I don’t know what I’ll do when he goes,” Jackson says of Ricci. “I’ll have to get a roundtrip ticket to heaven.”

Men wait their turn in four chairs that line the back of the 12-foot-wide barbershop, talking about the weather, bragging on their grandchildren, and bemoaning the price of gasoline.

Ricci has worked as a barber for 66 years and inherited the trade from his father, Basilio, who opened the shop in 1913.

Not much about the barbershop has changed through the decades, other than the cost of a haircut. Ricci hiked the cost 50 cents last year to $10.

An old placard in the window lists prices from the 1950s: Adult, $1.50; Children, $1.25; Shave, $1.25; Massage, $1.50. Ricci wrote “Once Upon A Time” above the vintage price list.

While old-fashioned neighborhood barbershops are fading into history, the barbering business as a whole is growing at a steady clip.

“Short hair is in and our barber schools are full,” says Charles Kirkpatrick, 67, executive officer of the National Association of Barber Boards of America, based in Arkadelphia, Ark.

Today, there are 220,000 barbers in the United States, up from a low of 190,000 in 1974 when long hair and beards were popular for men. The face of the barber and the barbershop, though, is changing. Forty percent of barber students are female and the barbershop is likely to be part of a chain.

“Barbering is the oldest honorable profession in town,” Kirkpatrick says. “There’s a trust and a bond with the barber. You step into that person’s chair and trust that person with your hair and to put a razor to your neck.

“It happens at every little nook in America.”

In Coffeyville, Kan. (pop. 11,021), a red, white and blue barber pole twirls on the front of the Ninth Street Barber Shop, where men drift in throughout the day and wait in the brown leatherette chairs lining three walls.

Longtime customer Leonard Howard, 69, strikes up a conversation with Harold Schafer, 70, who has driven to town for a haircut. “Hey, are you the guy who almost punched me in the third grade?” Howard asks Schafer.

Schafer nods sheepishly.

Neither can remember what the childhood tiff was about and they enjoy the camaraderie of the barbershop, talking like old friends about the latest University of Kansas football game and lamenting the loss of downtown businesses.

The Ninth Street is the last of the independent neighborhood barbershops in Coffeyville. “When I came here in ’64, we had 17 shops and 22 barbers,” says owner John Mills, 62. “We used to have a barber union and all our prices and hours stayed together.”

Most men who visit one of the shop’s three barbers request a standard “shorten it up” or a buzz cut or flattop. Some need their mustaches and beards trimmed, and a few have special requests.

“A guy came in one day and wanted me to shave his back,” says barber Bob McBeath, 69. He obliged, and didn’t even charge him.

Heads of hair are cut beneath a gallery of wildlife at the Trophy Barber Shop in Baytown, Texas (pop. 66,430), where a menagerie of 105 bass, bison, brown bear, moose, wild boar, wildebeest and other creatures are mounted on the wall. A 10-foot-tall polar bear, with a seal draped over its feet, guards the front door, and clustered on the ceiling are 750 sets of deer antlers.

“When I bought the shop, all the heads came with it,” says Randall Ashby, 69. “It’s kind of a landmark.” The late owner, Jimmie Carpenter, was a big-game hunter who opened the barbershop in 1948. When his wife tired of dusting his safari souvenirs at home, Carpenter moved them to the barbershop.

The wildlife trophies, mingled with vintage hunting and fishing photos, fit perfectly in the shop where outdoorsmen have an attentive audience for their larger-than-life tales.

“More fish are caught here than in the water,” quips Robert Gresham, 35, one of six barbers clipping away.

Customer Jason Maris, 31, says “another good cold front and those flounder will be moving” in the Gulf of Mexico. He caught a 3-pounder on his last fishing trip.

“My dad cut my hair in elementary school and once I graduated from the bowl cut, I came here,” says Maris, of Baytown, who started coming to the shop at age 12. “It’s hard to beat the old Trophy. I love the animals.”

The popular hangout helps men spiff up from head to toe. John Cooper, 75, has been shining cowboy boots and shoes at his shoeshine stand in the back since 1964.

The barbers offer shaves, too. Joel Miller, 31, tips back in his chair and closes his eyes as Gresham places steaming hot towels on his face to soften his whiskers. The barber swaddles his client’s face with warm shaving cream from a lather machine, then carefully removes whiskers with a straight razor.

“It’s relaxing,” says Miller, a third-generation customer in Baytown. The shave cost $10.50, the same as a haircut. “My first haircut was here and my first shave was here. It’s a one-of-a-kind place, I’ll say that.”

Straggly hairs, wherever they sprout on a man’s face, get snipped at the Trophy Barber Shop. “Some guys don’t want to look like Andy Rooney,” says barber Rick Falconi, 56, as he snips at the bushy eyebrows on an older man.

The youngest generation of guys enjoys visiting the old-time men’s barbershop, too. Ryan Fullen, 3, perches on a booster board while getting a flattop. Ryan’s big brown eyes stare right back at the stony-eyed moose.

“He loves coming here,” says his mother, Gail Fullen, of Baytown. “This is all he’s talked about all morning.”

Though classic barbershops aren’t as common as they used to be, the twirling barber pole always will be a welcome sign in hometown America, as long as men need a “little off the top” and a place to have serious—and not-so-serious—conversations.

“Men know exactly what they’re getting when they come in here,” Falconi says.