“All things change except barbers, the ways of barbers and the surroundings of barbers,” wrote Mark Twain more than a hundred years ago.
Yes, there is something primal about a barbershop, down to the swirling red and white pole, a nod to barbers’ medieval duties as surgeons and bloodletters. Wherever you are in this country, you can count on a barbershop for the rough smell of talcum, newspaper and Barbicide, the glint of a straight razor as it skims your Adam’s apple and even the inevitable bummer of the guy down the row with his disquieting mirror stare.
But Twain wasn’t exactly right. The American barbershop has transformed dramatically, from the advent of black barbershops in the 19th century, when freed slaves adopted the craft and were forced to codify a racial divide that still remains, to the metrosexual 1990s, which sent well-heeled men to salons and further subdivided haircut class distinctions.
Today the barbershop is experiencing a renaissance that would knock Twain’s socks off. From New York to San Francisco, high-end hipster outposts are on the rise, offering slick cuts and an experience not so much American as Americana. The trend was born in 2006 at New York’s Fellow Barber, where a cut runs $45 and antique chairs are filled with predominantly white, tattooed, well-dressed men who look, in truth, a lot like me—creative types young enough to appreciate the 1990s hip-hop humming overhead and old enough to remember the lyrics from the radio.
Shops like Brooklyn’s Blind Barber (haircut: $45) are attached to bars for those who prefer to get tanked after their cleanup; others operate out of tastefully rugged men’s stores, like Boston’s Ball and Buck ($48), where “America koozies” ($5) and handmade fishing nets ($98) are on offer just a few steps from your chair.
These shops sell, more than anything else, the experience of masculinity, and it’s a sexy one. For the cost, they prove that manhood has become a consumer good, sold alongside mounted hunting trophies and beer served on tap. They offer an interesting by product too: They allow men to choose which masculine ideals they want to reflect and which they want to reject.
Some would argue that the overwhelmingly white and well-to-do men who frequent such shops have become caricatures of themselves, with their “lumbersexual” beards and hand-engraved gold flasks. More likely, these men have come to a crossroads and have the opportunity to wrestle with an important question: What does it mean to be a man?
“Men today are being marketed masculinity in ways never seen before,” says Kristen Barber, assistant professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale and author of the forthcoming Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry. Barber’s research follows men who frequent salons over traditional barbershops, which she notes are a dying breed; according to the 2012 census, only about 3,700 remain registered across the U.S., clustered primarily in black and Latino neighborhoods.
Barbershops have always been charged spaces in this country, often divided along race and class lines. The new breed of barbershop offers an opportunity to flatten those divisions in ways not possible before and “create space for people to critique traditional notions of masculinity,” Barber says. “But men are very skilled at ignoring the revolutionary possibilities they offer.”
I’m a collector of the nouveau barbershop experience. In surf stores, side alleys and tattoo shops, from Manhattan ($45) to San Francisco ($45), Oakland ($25), Brooklyn ($45), Boston ($48), Nashville ($45), Austin ($22), Rome ($100) and London ($40), my barbers have been expectant fathers, weekend surfers, small-town escapees, jerks and sweethearts, each a rough, sensitive, brainy, loud-mouthed combination all his own. The weave of our conversation is intoxicating as we test out the kind of men we want to be while staring at our reflections. I’m the bearded, gray-speckled 30-something in the collared shirt, my masculinity visible because I’ve purchased it, synthetic like the testosterone I inject weekly. The other “real men” and I talk fatherhood, boxing and life goals. I treasure that hour twice a month, using it to echolocate who I’m becoming as much as I work to remember who I’ve been.
My first barber experience, 20 years ago outside Pittsburgh, was a revelation despite the humble location: a sad sack strip mall, between a RadioShack and a photo developer. The clipper shop lacked any romance, but its flinty masculine mystery drew me into a slow orbit until the day I walked in, at the age of 14.
I was not a boy—at least I wasn’t born Thomas. Not that it mattered. I’d learned that the dissonance of my body could be resolved if I walked with my shoulders and not my hips. I learned that masculinity was a collection of signals that allowed me to translate myself: a certain way of talking, a specific kind of shirt, a square sideburn. I learned that being a man had a price and a shift’s worth of busboy tips could purchase it.
The shop was tumbleweed-empty but for two geriatric barbers on the day I pushed open the door and asked for a shave and haircut ($15). I tried not to flinch as the barber turned me toward him and then away, running the electric razor along the side of my skull, my hair peppering his floor, the cracked red leather chair sticking to the soft underside of my thighs.
He must have felt bad, because he asked if I’d ever shaved before and if my dad had taught me how, and when I said no on both counts he showed me in the mirror, positioning me so I could watch him run the blade over my jaw. He didn’t need to say he was a father himself or that he grew up without one, because barbershops are not places where men have to explain themselves.
“What one experiences in a barber’s shop the first time he enters one,” Twain noted, “is what he always experiences in barbers’ shops afterward till the end of his days.” The truth is, like the barbershops popping up on our corners, men my age are aspiring to a reimagined masculinity, one in which being a man isn’t defined by measuring up to our fathers as much as being a better father to our own kids, even as we’re not quite pulling it off. The barbershop is still a place divided, whether by class, race or fraternity, by dick jokes and our grasp toward the “real men” we want to be and what we’re willing to pay to achieve that.
Sitting down in front of that mirror is an opportunity to reflect on what’s before us. Masculinity doesn’t exist unless we buy into it. And for the first time in modern history, we know that we have only to look at ourselves to see how much it costs.