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The Barbershop is Back

In an Age of Salons and Stylists, Men of Distinction Are Returning To the Time-Honored Pleasures of a Barber's Care
Warren Kalbacker
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

The slender young barber prepares a steaming towel in the marble basin and announces that it was Alexander the Great who first ordered his troops clean shaven so enemies couldn't grab them by their beards.

"I enjoy reading about the history of my trade," remarks the tonsorialist, who goes simply by the name Anderson and presides weekdays at Harrison James, a men's shop with a clubby ambience that occupies an entire Manhattan townhouse.

Anderson's client, reclining in a century-old Koken barber chair, watches raindrops trace amoeba-like patterns on the skylight above. The barber stands behind the chair and slowly draws the hot towel--the first of maybe half a dozen, depending upon the toughness of the beard--under the chin, across the cheeks and up and over the eyes. Anderson has confidence in his skills. No white coat or vest for him. He's hung his stylish suit jacket on a nearby peg and hasn't even tucked in his necktie. Anderson will not stain that tie with shaving cream. The prospect of a nick on the cheek from Anderson's blade seems so remote that the client may nod off.

This is the experience of the shave distilled: incredible relaxation as the barber first wraps the face in warmth, then applies the sharpest of instruments.

It is an experience to which many men are returning. After years of trusting their tonsorial care to hairstylists and reduced to shaving their own faces, they are finding their way back to professional full-service barbers, who are steeped in the history of the trade and trained to cater to a man's specific needs. What's more, the lucky men who do are finding that the time invested pays off handsomely.

The Brazilian-born Anderson is deliberate. He apprenticed in his homeland before moving to New York, where he worked for a year in a Japanese-run barbershop. "Their techniques are very meticulous. I really wanted to learn from them," he says. "They spent two months teaching me how to apply hot towels."

Anderson's next client may be savoring a smoke in the cigar lounge downstairs, but Anderson is in no hurry. Another hot towel follows the first lather application. Then he massages more lather into the beard. "Keep it moist," he says, explaining that canned creams and gels dry out too quickly on the face. He inserts a blade into his open razor, a gift from an old Italian barber. "For the first pass you always go with the direction of the grain of the beard." There are several passes.

Anderson will spend upwards of half an hour removing a man's whiskers. But smooth cheeks aren't the only reason those who grew up on canned foam and throwaway safety razors find their way to the barber's chair. Anderson reports that men have begun to make appointments for after-work shaves--a way to unwind after a tough day. Or buff up for the evening ahead.

It is the return of that male sanctuary, once practically doomed by pastel-decorated styling salons blaring rock and roll. And with it comes a certain level of style that almost became extinct as well. Anderson warns men against "beauty school graduates" who wield scissors but remain clueless when it comes to even the classic men's haircut. "The back of the hair must be gradually tapered and men should wear sideburns to midear length," he insists. Anderson feels the sideburns "give character to the face."

Harrison James is just one of a number of barbers who are providing men an alternative to the salon. Geo. F. Trumper, a London landmark since 1875, advertises the "rare service of providing a traditional shave." According to Ian Matthews, himself a barber and manager of the establishment, "We're getting a lot of men who come in once every two weeks for the experience of having the whole thing--a shampoo, haircut and shave."

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