The barbershop is the alpha male of the hair-care world.
While the Cost Cutters, Supercuts, Wal-cuts, Cuts-R-Us and other fast-food-style salons of the world have challenged its existence, the barbershop has survived - like a silverback gorilla pounding his chest from the top of a cliff, surveying the landscape for danger and potential mates.
Absurd metaphors aside, the barbershop does survive. How? Why? On the surface, the barbershop is even less glitzy, less shiny, less polished than your average discount salon. Most barbershops have the feel of a half-finished basement from the 1950s. They're clean, they're orderly, but they're very wood-paneled. They're exactly the sort of small-town establishments that are squeezed from both ends - with upscale spa salons on the one hand and rampant strip mall development on the other.
The saving grace of the small-town, old-fashioned barbershop is that it is unabashedly old-school masculine.
It's rough around the edges, in sharp contrast to the gilded palace of the salon. A hair salon is covered in every direction with mirrors. It appeals to the voyeuristic side of the customer. You can see what almost everyone in the entire salon is having done to their heads. You can see every angle of your own haircut as it is happening. And, on a side note, you can observe your stylist's butt, and quietly judge it.
A barbershop, on the other hand, tends to have one wall of mirrors and one wall of seats. You can't see the barber's butt, and that's fine. You can't easily see what anyone else is having done. The place I go, Keith's Barbershop in Beaver Dam, is a two-chair operation. The barber actually spins you away from the mirror once he asks, "How short today?" You can watch the TV hovering above the 8-track in the corner of the room or you can look out the window towards the street. When the haircut is finished, the barber sweeps your face and neck with a tiny broom, and then you're spun back towards the mirror to see what's been done to you.
When you walk into a small-town barbershop where they don't know you yet, it can be a little bit intimidating. It's kind of like walking into a neighborhood bar for the first time. There's an initial wariness on the part of the inhabitants until they know who the hell this guy is. In some ways, that's probably why many people are more comfortable going into the franchised salon when they move or visit a new town. It's generic, it's easy, it's familiar, it's anonymous. Cost Cutters is Cost Cutters wherever you go. You'll probably get a decent haircut there. It's the same reasoning you employ when you choose McDonald's over the strange, random diner named after a proprietor you don't know.
More men are returning to the classic barbershop. One reason is the barber never tries to sell you anything other than a haircut. At a salon, there's always a counter full of products.
In the salon, the walls are spotted with pictures of people with elaborate, ridiculous hairstyles. In the barbershop, there's often a stuffed and mounted animal or a fish.
Salons are full of glossy celebrity magazines. At the barber, you'll find a few newspapers and an old Sports Illustrated.
Outside of Keith's, there's a classic barbershop pole on either side of the door. On the top of the pole it says "Look Good" and on the bottom it says "Feel Good." It's a sweet, simple sell that doesn't prey on your insecurities.
Barbershops maintain their individuality, and that adds to the experience. Barbershops tend to assume the identity of their owners. That's part of the fun in a new barbershop: imagining its back-story, reading its history, but without prying. I always assume that the guy cutting my hair is the guy who owns the place. If there are two barbers in the shop, then the imaginary scenario gets more complicated. Generally, I assume the taller guy or the more talkative guy is the owner. In some cases, I figure that they are brothers
who inherited the shop from their father, who inherited the shop from his father, who inherited it from his father, who weaseled it away from the widow of his former partner. I like a twist at the end of my imagined lineages.
The conversations are great in barbershops, too. Ice Cube built his entire major motion picture, Barbershop, around such conversations. In Wisconsin, weather is usually the introductory topic - the icebreaker, if you'll pardon the pun. The weather gets things going. Initially, it's the weather's current state. This morphs into how someone else heard that the weather was going to change in the near future, usually for the worse. Someone else chimes in and notes that he heard the weather was going to be even a little bit worse than the previous person claimed. Weather history is then dredged up. Initial man says that it is either far better or far worse than the weather used to be, generally far better. If there's a lot of snow on the ground, there used to be at least twice as much snow on the ground. Children were lost in the drifts for days and survived by eating their mittens. If it's summer, then it used to be much hotter. You used to be able to cook a pheasant on your blacktopped driveway in five minutes.
Weather is followed by sports (Bucky, Packers, hunting, or fishing, not necessarily in that order), politics, and women. The last few times I had my haircut, politics and women were woven even more tightly together because of the looming national primaries.
In any event, barbers don't charge a lot for haircuts, and the shops are rarely crowded. Keith's charges $13 for a regular haircut (it's a dollar cheaper if you've lived at least 65 years), $5 for a beard trim, and $18 for a "Special Haircut." After inquiring, I was informed that a "Special Haircut" is the sort you give to someone who hasn't had a haircut in three years or so.
Google searches for "barbershop" reveal much more about four-part harmony troupes than hair-shortening institutions. There isn't a large web presence or much of a governing body for barbershops across America, and this fits well with the barbershop ethos.
They're hair-chopping sleeper cells, revolutionary militias plotting not the overthrow, but the backup plan, once the lights go off in America. They'll still know how to shorten hair with scissors and a straight razor.
There are over 100 places you can get your hair cut in the greater Madison area, from the College Barbers on State Street to your friendly franchise place on the strip, and each of us has his own preferences. Nonetheless, according to the Ed Jeffers Barber Museum in Canal Winchester, Ohio, the number of barbershops is on the rise. The '90s were a great decade for short hair. Barbers have ridden the rising tide. While the sale of male beauty products is on the upswing and chest waxing is acceptable, the barber has become a safe haven for men who just want shorter hair than the hair they walked in with.
A selected list of traditional barbershops in the area
665 State St., 608-255-5601
Groff's Buckeye Barbershop
4603 Buckeye Rd., 608-222-8223
1409 Northport Dr., 608-244-2990
1515 Monroe St., 608-255-1588
420 S. Park St., 608-256-1623