In Search of America: One Barbershop at a Time: After Shave
A Few Final Reflections
Hope for the Future
Barbershops have a long history. Although there exists a certain sameness, the business has changed over the years. Barbershops are still active today with the resurgence of the "Hipster Barbers" with their patrons' willingness to wait and want quality grooming. In my opinion, barbershops have a bright future as efforts are made to recapture some of the cultural richness from the past. Marlin K. Jensen, Utah Board of Regents, was quoted as saying, "In looking back we obtain a sense of identity that enables us to deal successfully with the present and maintain hope for the future." From my travels across the country, I have hope for the future of America's Main Street Barbershops.
Discussing “Third Places,” Oldenburg states, “All great cultures have had a vital informal public life” (pg. xvii). He also added, “These places serve community best to the extent that they are inclusive and local” (pg. xvii). Barbershops meet the criteria and historically have strengthened America’s informal public life by being both local and inclusive.
The disappearing of “Third Places” has weakened the fiber and strength of communities. Individuals have become more isolated from meaningful social contact, connection, and conversation. People remain “lonely in crowds.” Oldenburg sees some movement to correct the profound negative effects of suburban and urban planning which have almost killed the sense of community. His concluding plea, “it doesn’t have to be like this" (pg. 296). I agree with him.
The barber and his shop provide an environment for social interaction, renewal, and bonding. Putnam in his book, Bowling Alone, states, “Informal social connectedness has declined in all parts of American Society” (pg. 108). Barbershops will not cure all social ills yet with their sense of place and their strength as a gathering hub, this decline can be altered. A restoration of sorts as a channel for communication, barbershops can do their part in providing an informal environment for people to reconnect with each other.
Barbers Role: More Than Just a Haircut
The personality and caring nature of a local barber carries with it the opportunity for the barber himself to become a trusted confident and friend. The following three quotations provide insights into the breadth of a barber's influence:
“When one barber learned that I make my living not as a photographer but as a psychotherapist, he said that explained my interest in barbers. He observed, ‘We are in the same line of work. We both get paid to listen to people’s problems. I carry other people’s pain the same as you do, son. I just also give them a haircut to remember me by’” (Hunter, pg. 3-5).
Hunter describes, “A barber is many things to his customer. He is political commentator; he is sports and news reporter. He hears confessions. He gives advice. For some he is the father they never had, or a reminder of the father that has passed on. The touch a man receives at the barbershop may be the one physical contact, other than a handshake, that he will every experience from another man” (Hunter, pg. 27).
“Barbers over the years have been confidents, friends, father figures. They’ve supplied us with news, gossip, and corny jokes. And, oh yeah, they’ve cut our hair. How do you replace something like that in a culture? Maybe some people are content to have good-looking hair and an empty soul, but for me the character of the barbershop is the most important thing about it. A good haircut has very little to do with a good barbershop” (Staten, pg. 171).
The Currency is Talk
There exists a lot of talking and a lot of listening in a barbershop. What is discussed may not be as important as having a safe place to discuss; where judgement is limited and conversation is encouraged. Stories reign.
"What makes for a great barbershop? To begin with, it can't be called a style shop. In fact, if it's called a style shop, I won't go in. I don't want a hairstyle. I want a haircut. But it goes beyond that. If it's called a style shop, it's trying to be something other than a barbershop. And I don't want that. I want a barbershop, a community of men. ... Where the radio plays loudly with the sounds of a sports announcer. And where the currency is talk. You learn more in the barbershop than you ever learn in the newspaper. The barbershop is the community center in many places. That community may be an entire small town or a neighborhood. Or it may just be a community of like-minded folks. Give me an old-fashioned barbershop any day (except Sundays and Mondays, of course. All barbershops are closed Sundays and Mondays). The barbershop of my childhood differed not one iota from Wib's. Some things never change" (Staten, pgs. 13-14).
Conversation is Critical
Barbershops are classic “Third Places” and as such, are destinations inviting casual, open, and non-judgmental conversation: “Neutral ground provides the place, and leveling sets the stage for the cardinal and sustaining activity of third places everywhere. That activity is conversation. Nothing more clearly indicates a third place than that the talk there is good; that it is lively, scintillating, colorful, and engaging. The joys of association in third places may initially be marked by smiles and twinkling eyes, by hand-shaking and back slapping, but they proceed and are maintained in pleasurable and entertaining conversation” (Oldenburg, pg. 26).
- Oldenburg, Ray. The Great Good Place. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, pgs. ix, xvii, 209, 26, 1989, 1997.
- Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, pg. 108, 2000.
- Hunter, Mic. The American Barbershop – A Closer Look at a Disappearing Place. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin: Face to Face Books, pgs. 3-5, 27, 1996.
- Staten, Vince. Do Bald Men Get Half-Price Haircuts? In Search of America’s Great Barber Shops. New York: Simon & Schuster, pgs. 171, 13-14, 2001.