Hair today…gone tomorrow
In search of the perfect shave
“It’s the last luxury,” the avuncular stranger affirms, one hand pressing my jaw to tauten the skin, the other razing my soft stretched neck with a blade of polished steel. I want to concur, but given my reclined posture, and the honed and unaccustomed edge at my throat, I can neither nod nor grunt safely in agreement.
I’m almost 40 years old, and I’d never been shaved. I mean sure, I’ve shaved my own skull plenty, and my underarms once to get rid of some desert fungal funk, and one time a college girlfriend…well, that was with electric clippers, so that doesn’t count.
And of course I shave my own face with a Bic, once or twice a week, or in winter maybe not at all. But until this morning I’d never laid back and relaxed for the classic barbershop straight-razor-and-strop treatment. It’s something, I now believe, that every man should do at least once before he dies.
Within the span of most young men’s lifetimes, in all likelihood, the opportunity will be gone. Many states have regulated the barbershop shave out of existence, and old-school barber-pole barbers, descendants of a breed that once pulled teeth and performed minor surgery in addition to trimming sideburns, are nowhere a reproducing species. Hairstyling “cosmetologists” have pretty well taken over the market.
But the old-school experience hasn’t abandoned Missoula yet. It’s still here in the person of Steve, ensconced in his time capsule Capital Barber Shop on Main Street, where he’s been for more than two decades, with another couple decades “on the street”—by which he means within a few-block radius—before that. Steve learned how to shave a man with a straight razor at the feet of a mentor named George, with whom Steve apprenticed after graduating from barber college. Steve was “lucky to get to learn from a real old-timer.” Then he went into business on his own. He says he’s employed five apprentices himself over the years, but they always moved on, and finally his accountant told him the payroll taxes were costing more than the help was bringing in. He’s worked solo ever since.
There are still two chairs bolted to the floor, ancient and highly collectible black-vinyl-covered specimens with chromed flip-top ashtrays in both padded armrests. There’s also an array of matching black vinyl waiting chairs with their own built-in butt holders. There’s been no smoking inside for years, but in the old days, Steve says, he’d have to open the door in the dead of winter to let some air in. He doesn’t much miss those days. He says business is better smoke-free.
The walls are covered with faux wood paneling, and the paneling is covered with college and pro sports pennants dating to the shop’s opening, and there’s a fresh copy of Penthouse on the magazine rack should you care to enjoy it. A haircut costs $15, a shave will set you back $14, and if, like a guy, you don’t really know how to talk about what you’d like your hair to look like, that’s okay with Steve. “I’ll get you cleaned up,” he says.
The last person to say that to me must have been my mother. But she never held a knife to my throat. And I can’t imagine a scenario in which I’d casually flip through Penthouse whilst shooting the shit with mom. This, I begin to realize, perhaps a bit late, is simultaneously, and a bit weirdly, a wholly nurturing environment and an unapologetic man’s world.
To enter it, you have to get past the reflective shades hanging behind the plate glass and the sign that says closed when it really means open (Steve’s inside joke), crack the door off the little foyer and poke your head into the almost awkwardly private tableaux of one man grooming another man in an otherwise empty room. You inquire as to whether the establishment is open (yes) and whether it accepts walk-ins (recognizing too late the inappropriately salon-ish ring of the phrase; appointments, in jesting fact, cost an extra $100). No credit cards.
Oh yeah, and you have to be a man. Steve hasn’t cut women’s hair in a while. Nothing personal, it just turned out to be bad for business. Guys who prefer the charms of an old-school barbershop apparently aren’t as fond when there are dames around to mess up the mojo. In an industry—hair cutting—that’s embraced the hideous word “unisex,” Capital Barber Shop hangs on, like perhaps too many poker tables, as a last bastion of unadulterated maleness.
While Steve was cutting my hair, two more men walked in, said hello, and sat down to wait. A short time later, the glassed door opened again, and in its frame stood a woman in her early 30s, with a similarly aged man, clearly her husband, in the hallway behind her. The woman wanted to know how long the wait was likely to be. Steve said he figured about an hour. The woman thanked him and turned to leave. “But I can’t hold a place,” Steve added, not unkindly, but not exactly encouragingly.
“I understand,” the woman said, unoffended, as she departed.
The man who followed her away never said a thing. Neither did anyone inside the barbershop, but I’d lay good money on the proposition that we were all thinking more or less the same thought: That poor guy can’t even schedule his own haircuts. It felt good, that bond of implicit, protected understanding. It felt good not being that guy.
And it felt good getting shaved. The hot wet towels wrapped from chin to forehead. The hand-applied shaving cream. The steady and not at all unsafe feeling of metal raked across stubbled flesh. The periodic intermissions filled with the leathery whisper of blade whisking strop. The skin-puckering astringency of the aftershave and the disarming hocus-pocus of a facial massage. It all felt somehow more meaningful than your garden-variety Gillette quickie over the bathroom sink.
And it really hardly matters in the end that the haircut isn’t the most subtle statement you’ve ever worn around on your head, or that the shave isn’t in fact quite as close as what you’d normally get from a plastic twin-blade and a can of Burma Shave. It matters more that you didn’t have to talk about your hair, you got to check out the new Penthouse, you got yourself cleaned up, and you got—guilt-free—the kind of treatment a day spa would charge you triple for, and make you feel weird on top of that just for being a man in a day spa, doing something needless, like getting a facial, instead of something necessary, like getting a shave.
Granted, it’s not an everyday thing. It takes too much time and it’s a lot more expensive than just using a safety razor at home, like everyone else.
Even Steve, with his tightly trimmed white goatee, is a do-it-yourselfer. He says he hasn’t had a straight-razor shave since his mentor George showed him how to do it back in the day, decades ago.
Even today he remembers it as the last luxury.
Kalispell photographer Roy Jacobson just finished a book on old-school barbershops along the southwestern border. He’ll host an artist’s reception and book signing for Barberia at The Grey Leaf Gallery in Polson Saturday, Sept. 1, from 5 to 7 PM.