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Monday, December 25, 2006

It's a guy thing

There's just something about a barbershop.  I'm not talking about those precious salons you'll find in tony, gentrified neighborhoods or the shiny plastic 'super-cuts' at the mall.   No, I'm referring to the venerated, exclusively-masculine institutions that smell of talc, bay rum and hair tonic;  A barbershop.

When I lived in the US I frequented a few different barbershops, depending on whether I found myself in Connecticut or New York City when the need for a trim arose... but they all shared these common features (in no particular order):

Storefront location - Whoever heard of a barber shop on a second floor or inside an office building?  Unthinkable!  Half the charm is the walk-in traffic and having passers-by be able to see you tipped back there in the chair.  This is a social occasion!

Old fashioned chairs -  No improvements of any consequence have been made in the barber's chair since about 1930.  They need to swivel, go up and down, recline (with reversible foot pad for ankle comfort while tipped back), and weigh roughly a half ton.  A respectable barber shop will have a minimum of two or three such chairs... even if only one barber is on duty at any given time.

Additional seating - Those who are 'on deck', as well as the inevitable retirees who congregate in barber shops to gossip, must have ample seating in vinyl seats (with chrome trim) as well as a few handy Formica side tables strewn with newspapers and sporting/motoring magazines.

Pictures - Any barber shop worth its salt must have faded photographs on the walls showing haircuts that have been out of fashion for at least two decades.  A minimum of one 'mullet' picture is de rigueur!

Barbicide (no, this doesn't mean 'killing your barber after a bad haircut') -  The counter under the mirror must have at least two vats of this mysterious blue liquid with combs and scissors soaking in them.  Never mind that the comb and scissors the barber used for you were grabbed off the counter.  Not seeing that magical blue sanitizing liquid there in plain sight is a deal breaker!

Razor & Strop - When I was a kid I loved watching the barber 'fix' the edge of his straight razor with a few confident swipes at the leather strop hanging from the side of the chair.  He did this after he had used a badger brush (or his thumb) to dab warm shaving cream on the back of your neck and behind your ears.  One of my most closely kept secrets (until now, that is) is that the only reason I grew a beard when I became observant was so I could continue letting the barber use the straight razor on my neck (front and back) without worrying that he would accidentally stray to one of the areas forbidden under Jewish law.  These days for hygienic reasons most barbers use a straight razor handle fitted with disposable blades... but finding a barber who uses an autoclave for his collection of fine old straight razors is a rare treat indeed.

Hot towels - Even if you aren't getting a shave, having a hot towel from the warmer/humidifier tossed on your face and/or neck for a few minutes gives you a whole new lease on life!  Any airline that would give me a hot face towel at the end of the flight (instead of just a skimpy hand-cloth) would have a customer for life!

Wisdom - George Burns once remarked that it's "too bad the only people who know how to run the country are busy driving cabs and cutting hair."   Truer words were never spoken.  In my humble opinion, anyone who complains about a too-talkative barber is probably one of those sad cases who thinks he has nothing left to learn.  Along with the whole visual and olfactory experience of visiting the barbershop, one should come to the occasion prepared to soak up all sorts of wisdom... supplemented by additional commentary and sub-text provided by the retirees hanging out in the 'on deck circle.  I recall vividly going to the barbershop with my dad when I was perhaps 6 or 7 and imagining I would one day be wise enough to join the banter of these learned sages.  I still do far more listening than talking.

In the old city of Beer Sheva, not far from my office, there are at least five barbershops within a two block radius of one another that fit most or all the criteria I have listed above.  I try not to play favorites, but in truth I end up going to one in particular most of the time for the following reasons:

a) All of the other barbers seem to wander over to this shop when their trade gets slow in order to soak up the wisdom (basically catch up with the latest gossip).

b) The owner of the shop is an older Moroccan man who speaks in the slow, deliberate, richly accented Hebrew of an immigrant, even though he moved to Israel in 1964. 

c) He has two fine old barber chairs but I have never seen another barber at work there.  This means that while I wait my turn I can stretch out in the other barber chair and have a short snooze.  Inevitably the owner will pause from whoever he is working on to toss a couple of hot towels over my face and neck even if I'm just there for a trim.

d) All the barbers in the old city keep to the old habit of closing down for a few hours in the middle of the day and then re-opening from 4:30 until 7:30 or 8:00PM.  This allows me to wander over after work and not feel rushed.

e) I find myself drawn back there for a haircut when I feel news-starved, not necessarily when I need a haircut.

Guys, feel free to share... I'd love to hear about your favorite practitioners (and memories) of the tonsorial arts.  Girls, just relax... I don't necessarily expect you to contribute.  Just as we don't 'get' the 34 pairs of identical black pumps you have in your closet or your never-ending search for the perfect little formal black handbag... I don't expect you to 'get' this whole barbershop thing. 

Trust me, it isn't supposed to make sense. 


Posted by David Bogner on December 25, 2006 | Permalink


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Back in the day, a barbershop also always had, shall we say, 'literature' that I couldn't get at home or in the public library.

Posted by: Josh | Dec 25, 2006 7:33:03 AM

The barber shops of my youth always had fishing magazines and you could watch the fishing show on a small black and white TV with horizontal hold problems.

Posted by: Yitzchak Goodman | Dec 25, 2006 8:44:27 AM

I guess I've never had an authentic barbershop experience so far. Doesn't really bother me too much :-P

For some strange reason, I've had my hair cut by various Israelis for quite a few years now. The last one I went to was probably the most impressive yet. He didn't even (have to) ask me what I wanted! No more than five or ten minutes after I sat down, this man had finished, leaving me with what seemed like a perfect haircut (though it hasn't grown out very well). I think the included "shampoo" at some shops nowadays is what seals the deal for the younger, less-knowledgeable customers. It's all about being pampered, right? :)

Posted by: tnspr569 | Dec 25, 2006 9:02:04 AM

My grandfather ZL' father, and uncle went to the same barber for a good 35 years or so.

I was lucky enough to tag along on more than a couple of trips. It was one of those places where the men would "forget" that I was there and talk about "grown up stuff."

I loved that place. It made me feel like a big shot. It really was one of those old time joints that women didn't want to step into.

As a "grown up" I get my hair cut at a similar place and when I am feeling saucy get a shave as well.

One of these days I am going to pick up my straight razor. There is nothing like it.

My barber is thinking about retiring soon. That is going to mess things up for me. I get anxious just thinking about it.

Posted by: Jack | Dec 25, 2006 9:46:52 AM

You forgot the striped pole!

I had my hair cut by the same guy for over 20 years -- in exactly the environment you described. He was a stereotypical Italian barber named Joe.

When we moved to Israel it took some searching before I found the perfect barber -- before becoming religious he was a women's hair dresser. His storefront doesn't exactly have the "classic" feel (instead of magazines he has a Tehillim and a Mishna Brura), but he's fast and he gives a great haircut.

Posted by: wogo | Dec 25, 2006 10:11:25 AM

Do you only get your haircut in B7 or ever close to home? I really enjoy Itzik. Did you know he's participated in some international singing tournaments?

Posted by: Dave (Balashon) | Dec 25, 2006 12:00:33 PM

Is there any barber closer than Beersheva? My Better Half has had his hair cut in establishments like this all his life, and trained The Kid up the same way---we haven't yet found a REAL barbershop in Jerusalem yet...hey, anyone in Jerusalem know a place like this in town?

Posted by: aliyah06 | Dec 25, 2006 2:29:21 PM

I used to go to a barbershop in Northeast Philadelphia run by one Bob McGrath. Bob had a bit of an intentional tremor. Sometimes he would have to withdraw his shaky hand, steady it with a long drag on his cigarette, then move back in to resume trimming. There is another shop near me in Milltown, NJ that I went to a couple of times. They had patches and decals all over the walls from every local police force in the state. If you didn't get a crew cut they knew you were Jewish.

Posted by: Alan | Dec 25, 2006 3:09:19 PM

Oh, do I understand. I miss Bill, my Greek barber in the states. When I'm in the US, I still go to Bill.

Lately I've taken to cutting my own hair (#2 or 3) because Israeli barbers seem either too expensive (50NIS+ which is what I pay in the US) or I'm afraid they'll lob an earlobe off. But, for some reason, I've constantly found barbers that will do shampoos here, which is odd since I only got cuts in the US. I guess I'm looking for stylists here. There was a good guy on Melech George for a bit who used to cut the hair of the Moroccan king, but he moved.

Posted by: amechad | Dec 25, 2006 4:32:19 PM

Just got a much-needed haircut this week in a place strewn with androgynous fashion magazines (yuk) and pumping with Euro-trash music (yukkier). Your story really reminds me of the barbershop where I grew up. Luigi's place was exactly as you describe. It was Luigi who first made me feel like a "man," hinting in his tough-to-understand Italian accent that it was finally time for me to shave. It was just peach fuzz of course, but the way he said it I was ready to go out and buy a can of Noxema cream (remember that commercial with Farrah Fawcett and Joe Namath?) and a Schick razor.

I remember at the end of the summer after 8th grade when I had to finally get a short haircut because I was starting at a Yeshiva high school. My mom came along to insure compliance to the school's expectations, and when Luigi asked how we would like it, before I had a chance to say anything my mom pointed to the horizontially-elongated poster of President Kennedy facing the US flag and said "exactly like that."

Considering that my ears and the back of my neck had not seen the light for quite some time, I exited Luigi's feeling rather cold and exposed. At least Kennedy always found ways to warm up!

Thanks for triggering those memories - have not found a real barbershop near our neighborhood at all but if you hear of one please let me know.

Posted by: Yonah | Dec 25, 2006 4:33:31 PM

Storefront location - Whoever heard of a barber shop on a second floor or inside an office building?

I did!! There is a Bukharian barber on West 45th St, across the street from the judaica store (formerly Eichler's of Manhattan), and he is located on the second floor of the building. It is not so hard to find him. First, he has the striped "lamp" outside, but also he has a guy on the street, close to the building's entrance, giving out flyers the whole day for a $9.99 haircut. He has five chairs, and two or three people working for him (they change very often), so when you come in, they are all on top of you trying to get you to sit on their chair.
this guy gives me a very fast haircut, machine only, so two weeks ago i went to my kids' barber, a block away from our house here in Marine Park. The guy spent almost 30 minutes on me, and he had plenty of other people waiting. He gave me a nice haircut, but now i have to choose: speed and convenience in the city or a long wait for my 30 minute haircut in Brooklyn.

Posted by: David S | Dec 25, 2006 7:14:07 PM

You just gave me a flashback of my dad when we lived in Nazareth Ilite. My dad was always tempted to visit one the barbershops when we would go down to Nazareth, but although my dad had a heart of gold and trusted nearly everyone, something about a razor so close to his throat always made him have second thoughts.

Thanks for bringing a smile to my face. It's those little memories that make me miss him even more.

Posted by: jaime | Dec 25, 2006 11:50:03 PM

i love the sound of the scissors snipping away. i havnt had a haircut in a year or so but when the time comes im going to enjoy it

Posted by: Johnny Kosher | Dec 26, 2006 12:19:29 AM

Let me guess, the barber shop in Be'er Sheva you mention is Robert. I used to go there, but he had a young guy there about 15 yrs ago who has become my ONLY barber because he is so good. Unfortunately, his own place is too girly for my taste, but he he has to make a living.

Posted by: Avner | Dec 26, 2006 3:40:25 AM

Back in the late 70s, when I was about 13 and sporting a full Jew-fro, our neighborhood barber -- a fairly conservative Italian gentleman who handled my dad (Z'l), my brothers, and me -- expressed regret that he had "started too low." Unfortunately, therefore, he was going to have to give me a shorter haircut than what I would have preferred. Only later did I realize that he was in league with my father to see to it that I should look more presentable than I would have preferred.

Posted by: Drew | Dec 26, 2006 5:07:34 AM

Wow, and I thought those places are a myth, or at least a legend... : 0

Posted by: Irina | Dec 26, 2006 6:57:50 AM

Josh... I'll bet if you looked at the same magazine today you would find it incredibly tame. :-)

Yitzchak Goodman... The Barber shop I remember didn't have a TV, but the radio always seemed to be playing.

tnspr569... There are several in and around machenei yehudah. Go get a haircut!

Jack... I have a nice collection of vintage straight razors by the master 'Thiers Issard' himself. I love using them.

Wogo... The striped pole never did it for me... it looked too much like a candy cane. Also, once I found out it's background it was even less appealing.

Dave... I'm never around when itzik is open. My son goes there.

aliyah06... As I told tnsp579, there are a couple in and around machenei yehuda (in the outside shuk).

Alan... Sounds like a great memory. ;-)

amechad... You seem to be going to salons if they are charging you 50+ for a haircut. Go poke around near macheni yehudah and you'll find a few old-time barbers who will give you a nice haircut for 30-35 sheqels.

Yonah... It sounds like you stumbled into a salon. Go find yourself a good barbershop! :-)

DavidS... What's the rush? Don't you enjoy the experience?

Jaime... Glad I could trigger the memory.

Johnny Kosher... Have you taken a vow to become a nzir? :-)

Avner... I'm embarrassed to say I don't know his name (or the name of his shop). I never paid attention.

Drew... Sneaky! :-)

Irina... Nope. This is the real deal.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Dec 26, 2006 10:14:17 AM

OK, I'll bite -- what is the background of the striped pole?

Posted by: abbasegal | Dec 26, 2006 3:11:47 PM

abbasegal... According to this website, "The modern barber pole originated in the days when bloodletting was one of the principal duties of the barber. The two spiral ribbons painted around the pole represent the two long bandages, one twisted around the arm before bleeding, and the other used to bind is afterward. Originally, when not in use, the pole with a bandage wound around it, so that both might be together when needed, was hung at the door as a sign. But later, for convenience, instead of hanging out the original pole, another one was painted in imitation of it and given a permanent place on the outside of the shop. This was the beginning of the modern barber pole."

Posted by: treppenwitz | Dec 26, 2006 3:30:14 PM

@ abbasegal:

IIRC, the origin of the barber pole goes back to medieval barbers who were also (or primarily) did all kinds of surgery and bloodletting.

The red & white stripped pole represented blood and bandages.

Posted by: wogo | Dec 26, 2006 3:33:52 PM

Hey- you haven't seen me since September! How do you know if I need a haircut now? I've gotten two since I've been here! Maybe if Shabbos had worked out you would have been able to see firsthand that I've managed just fine ;-)

Oh, and I just love how everyone says that a given store is "in or around the shuk". If a given store was that easy to find, I would have discovered it already in my wanderings around the area! Seriously, though, I'd really appreciate specific locations, if you're able to provide such information.

Oh, and it's tnspr569; coming from someone whose name I've heard mangled by native English speakers, I'm just slightly miffed!

Just kidding. Stay dry.

Posted by: tnspr569 | Dec 27, 2006 9:18:04 AM

very informative

Posted by: phil | Jan 2, 2007 1:43:08 PM

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