Monday, February 18, 2008

The Barbershop

There was a time when almost every little “wide spot in the road” community had a barbershop. And villages of 600 people had as many as three or four. There were no written rules, but, like the corner pool hall, a barbershop was generally considered to be “Men Only” establishment. Aside from being just a place to get a haircut or a shave, it was somewhere for males to gather and to exchange news and views. And the wide range of occupations, backgrounds and lifestyles of the shop’s patrons usually furnished ample material for interesting conversations.
Some businessmen, serious about the importance of their appearance, would hit the barbershop every day for a shave. And for a haircut every week or ten days. Most men, though, were satisfied with a haircut once a month. A few came in to get “prettied up” only for special occasions. Most men who worked outdoors disliked getting haircuts in winter because it made “their heads feel too cold.” A few of the old bucks came in only once a year, in the spring, to “get sheared.”
The barber was usually a neat and clean fellow, and highly skilled in the use of a barber shears and clipper, and especially the straight edge razor. Some tell me that, in barber college, they learned to use that keenly sharpened (and highly dangerous) blade by shaving their own faces. Others say that their training required them to be able to shave soapy, foamy lather off an inflated balloon.
The skill of a good barber has always been recognized and appreciated. And many found that it didn’t hurt their business one bit if they became good conversationalists. So they learned enough about farming to be able to discuss that enterprise while they cut a farmer’s hair. They became experts on the intricacies and details of many varied jobs and business ventures. They kept abreast of the sports news, both nationwide and local. And just about anything else that might be of interest to their listeners.
But then progress reared its ugly head, starting with the invention of the safety razor. Previously, barbershop shaves had been a matter of convenience, and for some a “status thing.” Soon the electric shaver came along, making it even easier for a man to hack off the stubble. Next came the cheap, disposable safety shavers. And barbershop shaves became, almost entirely, a thing of the past.
A young man somewhere got the idea that it would be great to wear shoulder-length hair. And that idea caught on. With much help from TV, movies, and the news media, the fad rapidly spread across the land. The demand for barbershop haircuts decreased. Many of the older “purveyors of the tonsorial arts” closed their shops and retired. Some of the younger ones, unhappy with their dwindling income, began seeking steady jobs with good pay and benefits. And our beloved old barbershops (and barbers) continue to become more and more difficult to find.


I count up more treasures each day
That I’ve watched slowly slip away.
The one I sadly miss most is
The barber shop of yesterday.

Our old barber was a special
Kind of a gentleman, and wise.
Could make up good weather forecasts
Just by looking up at the skies,

Skilled with clippers, shears, and razor,
Could make a shaggy man look nice.
Whether asked, or not, he’d often
Dispense plenty good, free advice.

His one-chair shop was a kind of
World news and gossip clearing-place.
He would entertain you while he
Trimmed up your hair and shaved your face.

He could quote how much your neighbor
Got for that last big load of logs.
And how well folks’ cows were milking
And the latest prices for hogs.

He knew just whose hens were laying,
And whose wife and kids had the flu.
And which farm bills Congress should pass
And what the President would do.

He knew which young guys played on the
The local high school’s great baseball team.
They might not make it to “the State,”
But it don’t hurt to try…and dream.

He felt the Chicago Cubs just
Might get one more World Series chance.
He knew which girl each young fellow
Had taken to last week’s big dance.

Saturday evenings were busy,
Men would keep coming through his door.
As he prepared them for Sunday,
Clumps of hair piled up on the floor.

When each “masterpiece” was finished,
He’d splash on a bit of bay rum.
Show his customer the mirror:
“There I have maybe helped you some.”

He’d collect his pay politely,
This grand old master of pretext,
Say, “Hey, the chair’s empty, fellers,
I need the money. Who is NEXT?”

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