Years ago, if you drove down any Main Street in any town, large or small, you would see the familiar sight of the barber pole. Traditionally red and white, the spiraling pole represented blood and bandages, not because the barber was clumsy and inept, but in medieval times, a barber was also the local surgeon and dentist.
In America, it’s common to see a red, white, and blue barber pole, in a nod not only to tradition, but to patriotism. Barber shops were pretty much the same. Gleaming white and chrome, bright lights and mirrors. The barber chair could be equally intimidating or welcoming. As a child, the sight of the great chair that would rise from the floor was frightening. No child would want to sit still for long while someone snipped away at his or her hair. A haircut was something your mother told you was necessary. It was rarely fun, except for the lollipop you got at the end. In adulthood, the chair was a necessity and, in some instances, a place of relaxation.
The local barbershop was the hub of social interaction for men, second only to the local bar. Barbers will tell you it’s the other way around and the bar is second. Bartenders will tell you it’s the barbershop that is second. The problem could be solved by combining the two, I once thought, until I realized the combination of cocktails and sharp things was not so smart.
At the local shop, you got a haircut. A hair style was something you got elsewhere. A hair cut was done with scissors and clippers and a straight razor. There was no mousse or gel, but you might get some tonic and powder. There is nothing wrong with getting your hair styled. I know a lot of guys who get their hair styled. I don’t have enough hair, so no amount of styling will help. The barber was usually an older guy, in a white smock like the ones doctors used to wear. He would chat with you about current events and tell jokes and anecdotes. He knew your wife and kids and all of your buddies. His shop was small and clean and there was a TV in the corner that played the ball game. The drape would be tied around your neck, a towel tucked into your collar and you were in his hands. There might be a hot towel, a shave and a hair cut. Afterward, you’d be splashed with some aftershave and brushed off and you would go back into the world freshly groomed and smelling of bay rum.
The barber shop as a lot of us remember is a thing of the past, much like the department store candy counter and the cigar shop. It’s a relic of an era that was old when it was new. The corner barber shops closed as their barbers grew old and retired. Lives became more packed with hustle and bustle and social media became the predominant means of communication. You could get your hair cut in ten minutes by a young woman in an assembly line like salon and pay ten dollars and be on your way. The quick service salon sold hair products like mousse and such and the bottles of bay rum could only be found on the bottom shelf of the drug store.
As we often say, everything old is new again. The traditional barber shop is making a comeback. In cities and small towns, we are seeing a return to the simplicity of the barber shop. In New Bern, North Carolina, there is a throwback to a bygone time that somehow is relevant today. It is not simply a barber shop. Sure, you can get a hair cut there, but it’s much more. A friend of mine told me about the place and said I had to stop in. My wife cuts my hair in the kitchen and I don’t have a lot of hair, so why would I ever need a barber shop? My pal said to trust him and I told him I might one day.
I got a call from him telling me he had a Saturday morning appointment and I was welcome to come along and see what it was all about. My wife was having a yard sale that morning and I was looking for an excuse to get away from watching her sell all my stuff to strangers. My buddy said he would take me out for breakfast afterward, and I figured that bacon and eggs was a good enough bribe.
On Middle Street, halfway inside the arcade of an old office building, is C. Foy’s Tonsorial Parlor. Don’t ask me what the C stands for, I don’t know. Since I was meeting him for the first time, I imagined I could just call him Mr. Foy and I would be good to go. There is a cheerful young woman at the front desk who greeted us as we came in. We sat with another guy in some comfortable chairs and leafed through some magazines. Unlike the barber shops I remember, these were current magazines and not ones that were three years old. My buddy is a regular there and he introduced me to the other guy waiting and to Mr. Foy and Eric, the other barber. While my pal got his hair cut and shave, Mr. Foy and Eric were kind enough to include me in their spirited conversation. There were no limits to the conversation and we covered movies old and new, politics, and the state of the town.
I had not planned on getting a hair cut, but merely observing. I had a thought that it would make for an interesting column. I like writing about things that aren’t around anymore and one or two of you like reading about them. Eric gestured me to his chair and my buddy encouraged me, letting me know it was taken care of.
Eric is a master barber. From my experience, that is an understatement. After years of getting my hair cut by the above mentioned assembly lines, I was in the hands of a capable craftsman. There is not much to be done with my hair, but it was clipped and cut and trimmed. A straight razor was used for shaping the sideburns and the back of my neck. Afterward, there was a shoulder rub straight out of a 1940s boxing movie, complete with a massager that looked like a cross between a palm sander and a ‘56 DeSoto. Shortly after, I got out of the chair ready to take on the world.
C.Foy’s Tonsorial Parlor is kid friendly as well. In addition to the big barber chairs, there’s a smaller one, shaped like a gleaming airplane, complete with a spinning propeller. Had I realized there was an option, I would have sat in the airplane. I think I am too big for it, though.
If you find yourself in New Bern, or even in the area, and decide you need a hair cut or a shave, give it a try. You won’t be done in ten minutes and it costs more than ten dollars, but the hair cut is just a small part of it.
Sometimes, you just need to take a step back a few decades, put down the smart phone and relax. It might just do you some good.
Contributing columnist and Baltimore native Joe Weaver is a husband, father, pawnbroker and gun collector. From his home in New Bern, he writes on the lighter side of family life.