In Search of America: One Barbershop at a Time: Welcome, Take a Seat
"Welcome, Take a Seat"
My name is Keith Buswell. I am a white-haired businessman, a husband, a father, a grandfather, a portly poet, and a wanderer. My full head of hair began turning white while I was in my late twenties. Now many years later, I still don't consider myself to be as old as my hair, but I am getting closer each year.
My journey began 22 years ago while living in Montana; on a bitter cold, sub-zero Saturday morning in the small town of Conrad, to support one of my sons in a high school wrestling tournament, I was hungry and needed a break away from the sweaty hot small rural gym. I drove a couple of blocks from the high school to Main Street and after having a hearty country breakfast, I stopped in at the local barbershop for a much needed haircut. Although I was a visitor to town, a foreigner of sorts, I felt at home and was captivated by the sights, sounds, and smells of this shop. I enjoyed seeing the array of magazines: outdoor, wildlife, hunting, fishing, sports, cars, and news. I became fascinated with the idea of visiting a different barbershop each month as the need for a haircut arose. In earnest, since January of 1996, I have been finding and visiting Main Street Barbershops as a regular patron. Since that time, in all time zones, I have "come home" to many new and different barbershops yet have always felt a certain peace in the place.
I have come to the conclusion that I am in search of America, one barbershop, one barber, one haircut at a time. Over the years, I have received a few bad haircuts but I have never encountered a bad barber. I have had my haircut in 281 different barbershops in 203 cities, in 146 counties, 40 states plus the District of Columbia, and in three countries: USA, Mexico and New Zealand. My pleasure and business journeys, just in the United States, have taken me over 238,000 miles to get a good haircut. I have crisscrossed the country in search of Main Street Barbershops and relished every moment. This is not a travel guide or scrapbook but an ongoing field trip of learning and experience. Enjoy rubbing shoulders with my adventures. Your understanding and appreciation for the acute role of Main Street Barbershops, as a noble and important part of the American tradition, will be enhanced and expanded.
“A Few Bad Haircuts but No Bad Barbers”
Barbershops provide a vital service and create a sense of place: a gathering hub within the community, a refuge, a connecting point. Although Mark Twain said "All things change except barbers...these never change," they are dynamic and reflect each local community; yet he is right in that a certain sameness can be seen in virtually all Main Street Barbershops. Once you are inside, with the old-school adjustable chair, the smells of Barbasol disinfectant and aftershave, the memorabilia, the clutter, and the symbols of barbering, you often don’t know if you are in Avon, Connecticut; Hamilton, Montana; Loganville, Georgia; or Platte City, Missouri. These patterns of barbering are ubiquitous across the country. Although Main Street Barbershops have been dying in some ways since the Beatles first came to the United States, there is a resurgence of interest in barbering and grooming overall. Those old-school barbershops still operating are lively and will live on in the memories of those patrons who have, who are, and who will bask in the confines of these manly barbershops.
Andrew H. Clark wrote, "It is the associative qualities of our memories that beguile us as our feet or fancy carry us on our endless personal Odysseys." My personal Odyssey began by searching for America in Main Street Barbershops. I have become an expert per se from my experiences and claim "authority of experience" (Awkward, pg. 225). My odyssey did not start as a scholarly pursuit but one of love for people, for places and for country. Along the way, I have fallen in love with these places we call barbershops. Although I did not begin with an agenda of what I hoped to discover, I have found much meaning in my search for America.
Barbershops have a history yet continue to play a role in community building and provide a place of refuge. In this digital exhibit, my hope is that each person who explores this collection of people, places, and travels, will be able to answer these questions: Is this exhibit informative? Is it important? Is it fresh? Is it fun?
A Ritual Place / A Refuge
Main Street Barbershops are more than just places to have your haircut. Eric Fridman did extensive research and concluded, “The success of Jay’s Barbershop is more than a testimony to the skills and courtesies of its owner. It also bears witness to the barbershop’s importance as a ritual place where the private and public concerns of men conjoin to create an experience of psychological comfort, social significance, and simple masculine pleasure” (Fridman, pg. 439).
James Twitchell in his book, Where Men Hide, has this to say about barbershops, “The barbershop is not about poodle grooming, it’s about male camaraderie…The American barbershop offered a refuge from the gaze of women. It was a retreat, not a launching pad, and the haircut was not a theatrical event” (Twitchell, pg. 117). Twitchell's description of the barbershop as a refuge rings true from my fieldwork and personal experience.
Traditionally, barbershops have been places of gender separation not in a negative way but just more practical. “A barbershop is a place for men. It is important to understand that periodically separating the sexes in this way does not necessarily lead to sexism. Males (and females) need a place where they can be alone with their own gender. In America, the barbershop (and the beauty parlor) have traditionally been places where such bonding could take place. You may have noticed how often a barbershop and a beauty parlor exist near one another, yet maintain a distinct separateness” (Hunter, pg. 33).
According to Trudier Harris, "In addition to its status as a gathering place, the black barbershop also functioned as a complicated and often contradictory microcosm of the larger world…It is a retreat, a haven, an escape from nagging wives and the cares of the world. It is a place where men can be men.” This applies to all barbershops not just black barbershops. I have had my haircut as the only white person in multiple black shops yet never felt uneasy or unwanted. My experience was similar to other shops as I basked in finding the sense of place as a retreat, refreshment and refuge.
My interest is in humanity, community, and connectivity, not haircuts, styles, fades or shaves. Eric Fridman highlights the importance of barbershops as "ritual places" in our society. Women go to "beauty shops" but men do not go to "handsome shops," they go to barbershops. As a barbershop placard says, "The Barbershop...Where Boys Become Men."
- Twain, Mark. About Barbers. New York, NY: The Galaxy, 1871.
- Clark, Andrew H. Praemia Geographiae: The Incidental Rewards of a Professional Career. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 52, pgs. 229-241, 1962.
- Awkward, Micheal, Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Postionality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pg. 225, 1995.
- Fridman, Eric. “Americana: Haircut.” The American Scholar Vol. 60, No. 3. Published by: The Phi Beta Kappa Society, pgs. 433-439, Summer 1991.
- Twitchell, James B. Where Men Hide. New York: Columbia University Press, pg. 117, 2006.
- Hunter, Mic. The American Barbershop – A Closer Look at a Disappearing Place. Mount Horeb, Wisconsin: Face to Face Books, pg. 331996.
- Harris, Trudier. “The Barbershop in Black Literature.” Black American Literature Forum. Published by: African American Review, St. Louis University. Vol. 13, No. 3 (Autumn, 1979), pgs. 112–118.