NOT SO LONG AGO, barbershops were going extinct. They were an anachronism, an institution that fell somewhere between the postal service and the video store on the scale of Overall Usefulness to Modern Life. Our fathers would be the last generation to cycle through the pole-marked doors, and that would be that.
But then, things changed.
In the last few years, seemingly overnight, barbershops staged a comeback. They’ve become as ubiquitous as Starbucks, in cities not just across North America, but in countries as far-flung as Australia, Japan and Brazil. Gone is the hairy-eared Italian barber who trimmed your childhood bowl cut once a month, replaced by a legion of young dudes in cuffed jeans and suspenders turning out dozens of pomade-slicked side parts and straight razor shaves a day.
It’s not just hipsters populating their swiveling chairs, though. It’s lawyers, architects and cops, too. For men below a certain age, this new breed of barbershop is the only haircut option worth considering. The state of the barbershop is strong. For now.
CHRIS HAMMELL could be a poster boy for the 21st century barber.
At first glance, you might mistake him for a cast member of Sons of Anarchy. Shaved head and bushy mustache. Tattoo-covered colossus of a body. Before picking up scissors and a smock four years ago, the 32-year-old toured for over a decade with punk bands like Alexisonfire and Good Charlotte doing a little bit of everything—stage managing, selling merch, whatever they needed. Now, he’s the proprietor of Town Barber, a two-seat chop shop in the back room of Lost & Found, a menswear boutique on Toronto’s hip Ossington strip.
“Based on my appearance, I’m not exactly the most hirable person in the world,” Hammell says with a gold-toothed grin. “I’ve always wanted to work for myself, and I knew I had to do something weird.”
Except that Town Barber’s location isn’t actually all that weird. Crows Nest Barbershop, where Hammell first learned the trade, thrived for three years in the cramped basement of a Toronto vintage store before finally moving into a renovated above ground space of its own last December. And Fellow Barber, the New York parlour that’s credited with kicking off the barbering renaissance, began life at the rear of a Lower East Side suit shop way back in 2006.
That new-school barbershops were birthed in the fashion world isn’t the least bit coincidental. It speaks to the biggest—maybe only—difference between the current crop and their forebears: aesthetics. Where traditional shops are no-nonsense and utilitarian, their successors swathe themselves in an old world veneer of antique leather chairs, tiled floors and taxidermy that gives them a distinctly masculine, clubhouse-like feel. In some ways, they’re a direct descendent of the “man spas” that grew out of the mid-aughts’ metrosexual boom—but while both cater to fashion-savvy guys, only the barbershops have understood how to balance style and substance in a manner that appeals to the majority of men. “Guys want a place to go where they can be a guy,” Hammell says.
And as old-timey, clipper-cut side parts and pompadours have risen in popularity— thanks in large part to Brylcreem-heavy period dramas like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire—the new generation of barbers have cemented themselves as the best place to cop the look. At Town Barber, Hammell estimates that 90 percent of the cuts he gives are some variation of “clippers on the sides, scissors up top.”
But while this specialization helped fuel the barbershops’ rapid growth, it could also serve to stagnate them in the near future. In Ontario at least, a fight is brewing over the issue of barber’s rights. Since 1991, the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities hasn’t recognized Barbering as its own trade, lumping it into the larger category of Hairdressing.
The result is that in order to legally cut hair in Ontario, you’re required to pass an 150-question licensing exam that focuses on the female side of the industry—the proper handling of chemicals used for colouring, for instance, or the correct techniques for mastering pin curls.
To prepare for the test, prospective barbers have two main options: apprentice at a barbershop, where you’ll learn the ins and outs of men’s hair (and have to teach yourself the exam material from a book) or, you can attend beauty school and sit through 10 to 12 months of classes covering processes and skills you’ll likely never use.“ It’d be like going to electrician school to become a plumber,” Hammell says.
NOT ALL BARBERS agree with that stance, though. Alex Berry, the head barber at Garrison’s by the Park Barbershop in Toronto, attended hairdressing school, got his license and spent six years working at both barbershops and salons before landing his current gig. In his view, versatility is an invaluable safety net.
“A lot of guys want to be barbers now because it’s trendy,” Berry says, “but they don’t care to learn the other half of the trade. What happens in a few years when the trends change, and the five haircuts they know how to give won’t cut it anymore?
It’s a fair question. Will modern barbershops be able to outlast the look they’ve perfected?
“This is probably the climax of my career,” Berry says. “I’ve been doing this for almost a decade, and I’m making more money right now than I ever have.
“But I know within the next five years, it’s going to start to slow down,” he continues. “Only the strong will survive. A few of my customers are already tired of the classic cuts and want a change, and I worry for the newer barbers out there who don’t have the skill or technique to give guys something different.”
BUT MAYBE, just maybe, the success and longevity of a barbershop hinges less on giving a certain look and more on understanding men. It’s what’s kept Forest Hill Barber Shop—an old-school joint entrenched a few miles north of Town Barber and Toronto’s epicenter of cool—afloat for more than 80 years.
On a surface level, Forest Hill doesn’t have a whole lot in common with its downtown successors. The shop’s interior is simple and to the point—harsh fluorescent lights bear down on dated linoleum floors—and there isn’t a single visible tattoo or piercing on any of its four aging barbers. But as the clippers buzz and the regulars yammer on, the parallels come into focus.
“A barbershop is a comfort zone for guys,” explains Terry Caris, who after 20 years in the shop is its least-tenured barber.
“It’s a man’s solace,” Caris’s current customer, a gentleman with wispy white hairs sparsely populating the sides and back of his freckled dome, interjects with a wide grin. “It’s a nice place to come.”
That’s something Chris Hammell understands well. “Some days it feels like I’m half-therapist, half-barber,” he laughs, “but at the end of the cut the guy’s going to leave feeling great because he looks better and he’s got some shit off his chest.”
Later in the afternoon, Hammell has a meeting with a landlord about a potential storefront up the street, and he’s beaming at the prospect of Town Barber finally having a space entirely its own. And while he knows that the barbershop mania might taper off in the next few years, he’s as committed to his profession as any of the old-timers in Forest Hill.
“To some extent, I’m in this for life,” Hammell says. “Guys are always going to need haircuts.”