In my last two articles (here and here), there was a similarity between them (well, aside from growing and maintaining facial hair, that is). In both of those articles, I underscored the importance of finding yourself a good barber that you trust and can work with. Much like any other professional service you may engage in (for instance, finding a mechanic) you are looking to build a relationship, and the foundation of that relationship is trust. Based on our survey results, it also seems that our readers have some questions around barbers, so I thought I would tackle that this month.
Options other than a barber shop
The first step is, of course, to find yourself a barber. If you are like most men (and how I started off), you might just head off to whatever shop is nearest and does not necessarily require an appointment. While these shops come and go – the sports-themed ones seem to be popular as of late – they all function the same. For these shops, the “low, low prices” are what generally get you in the door. Will you love the haircut you end up with? Maybe, maybe not. Back when I went to places like this, it often depended on who in the rotating cast of stylists was running the chair that day. Some months it was good, other times it was just waiting for it to grow out.
After you get tired of this, you might be tempted to head off to a salon (just bear with me here a minute, this will make sense). This could be because its where your wife or girlfriend heads off to, or you have a friend that recommended it (and they likely started heading there via that same female recommendation). What you get in this type of shop is the consistency you are looking for – you will see the same stylist every time, and they will give you a consistent cut. On the flip side of that coin is the cost. These salons are going to run at least 2-3x the cost as the local “haircuts for men” place. While at first that seems like a reasonable trade-off for getting a good haircut each and every time, that is not all there is to the picture.
Finding a true barber shop
What you really want to find is a true barbershop. First off, talk to your friends, families, and co-workers. These are people you trust, and you have seen how their haircuts look over time – odds are, if you like how theirs consistently looks, they have a barber you may want to check out. Aside from any recommendations you might pick up from friends and family, this is a search you can pretty easily engage in, starting with the Internet – review sites such as Yelp can help you to narrow down the likely candidates. In your day to day activities (whether around work or home) you also can keep your eyes peeled, because there is something very specific you want to look for when you are searching for a barber – that red, white, and blue striped barber pole. While my own experience with this is certainly not exhaustive, I have found that the presence of that pole means you have found the type of shop you are looking for. Once you have settled in on a place to try out, it’s time to head on in (up to you whether or not you call to make an appointment ahead of time).
How will know if that barber pole was just a ruse? Take a look around the shop, and you can look for a few things. Do not worry to much about the overall appearance of the shop. Past general cleanliness, I’ve found good barbers in places that have well worn linoleum on the floor as well as ones with floor to ceiling wood paneling. What you want to hone in on are the smaller details of the place. For starters, check out the chairs. Those suckers should look like leather and steel thrones that look like a more comfortable (and earth-bound) version of Captain Kirk’s chair on the Enterprise. If you look closely, you will likely see that the leather has accumulated the patina of use over the years as well. Next, take a look around for signage and products. Signs will likely be on the limited side, and the products are probably limited to a display case under the register. The product selection may seem limited, but that’s ok – they are there more for the occasional sale, not something that you are getting the hard sale on every time you come in. Finally, you can take a look at the magazines sitting on the tables where the customers are waiting. While it is by no means a hard and fast rule, but it seems you will find magazines oriented at guys – generally Sports Illustrated, perhaps a car magazine or two, and likely something from Hugh Hefner and crew.
Finding a good barber
Now that we have found a shop that looks like a likely candidate, and we have scoped the surroundings, it is time to focus on the guy that will actually be doing the work on your head! The first time you meet the barber, give him a good looking over. How is his own haircut? Not that he (likely) is cutting his own hair, but if he’s willing to accept something that looks like a train wreck, then that means he’d be willing to give the same to you. Next, check his overall grooming and state of his clothes. If things are neatly maintained, and the little details are all in order, you are likely in good hands. If the barber is down in the details of his own style, that very probably means the attention to detail will translate to your haircut.
Next, you need to talk to the barber. This should be a pretty easy step, as most barbers themselves like to talk as they work. Don’t be afraid to ask him how long he’s been a barber, and how busy he is. If he normally requires an appointment , take that as a good sign that other guys have trusted him, and he has a steady stream of regular clients. You might even want to consider asking how long he’s been at the shop. If he has been there a good long time (more than a few years) then it’s likely that he is not the sort to go from shop to shop, meaning you will not have to worry too much about having to follow the barber to a new shop – or start your search all over. Which, by now, I hope you realize is invaluable. Just like finding a good mechanic, a good barber is someone you want to keep a steady relationship with.
Benefits of going to a barber
Those things are just some of the items you can look for when trying out a barber shop – and a barber. And trying out is exactly what we are going to do here. When your barber gets you in the chair, he’ll look things over, ask how long its been since your last cut, and what you are looking for. Tell him what sort of style you like (could be as simple as “just like it is now, but shorter”) and any problem areas you might have. If the barber starts right in and gives you exactly what you want, then some red flags should go up. On the other hand, if he starts giving other suggestions that tweak what you’re looking for (or have gotten in the past), pay attention. With a good barber, you are going to a guy who is an expert in his field. He’s seen all manner of styles and head shapes, and probably has a good idea on what will work well for you and your hair. In other words, if you get some push back those first few visits, take it as a good thing. You are both working out some boundaries, and as time goes on, you will be able to settle into telling him that you just want “the usual”.
After he’s done, do not be afraid to point out any areas (especially this first visit) that do not seem quite like you had envisioned. Bring them up, and talk about it with the barber. This is where you can lean on their expertise (and see how well they listen to what you are asking). One of the biggest benefits of heading to a barber is that you are getting your hair cut by someone who only deals with men’s hair and styles. Thinning out on top (like me)? They know how to handle it. Want it high and tight? They have you covered. While many folks can cut hair, your barber can bring a wealth of experience to give you a cut that not only matches what you are looking for, will also make sense for what your hair and head are conspiring to do.
Next up comes the second best part of finding a good barber – the price. Even including tip, the price is likely half of what you would pay at a salon, and not that much more than what you were paying at the price-focused places. In other words, it is the sweet spot where you are actually getting a good value for your money. Now, should you not be particularly wowed by what the barber did, feel free to try out other places in the intervening months (or even a different barber at the same shop, if you are so inclined). Keep with that same basic premise to start (just like it is, but shorter) until you find a barber that you feel comfortable with, and feel like you are getting a solid cut. At that point, you can lock in to that shop (and barber) as your preferred place, and start exploring other options. Summer heat on the way and you want to go shorter? They can adjust your regular cut for that. Want to try out something else that you have a picture of? They can probably handle that as well. Just as you want them to listen to you, you do need to listen to them, as at this point they will have a handle on what will work well with your hair, as well as look decent with your head shape. It’s a matter of give and take, and that trust needs to be there. Once that is there, you can delve into other topics – say, grooming and maintaining (or removing) facial hair.
For me, I relish the consistency. The barber I head to now is a family friend, and his shop is surprisingly close to my office. I get a consistent cut (with some variation for the weather), and he’s handling the trouble spots without any further mention – he knows what I’m looking for, and I trust that he will give me what I want from the haircut. Additionally, once you have that relationship built, you can start in on some of those other discussions I covered in the earlier articles, such as recommendations for trimming and shaping a beard, or even what gear (or products) you might want to pick up for use at home. In the end, finding yourself a good barber is one of those things every guy should be doing (unless you’re shaving the head completely). While it may take some searching to find the right shop and scissor slinger for you, the search to find the right spot will pay off many times over in the long run. Ditch the local Sports Cuttery ‘n More, and head on over to the old school striped pole. You are going to like the results, and the search will be worth the effort.
What has been your experience with finding a good barber? Do you have any additional suggestions? Leave a comment below!
Photograph courtesy of Scott Durgan/Flickr