Survival Of The Shop -- Despite Three Decades Of High Fashion, Bad Fashion And Expensive Fashion, Barbers Are Still With US
THADDEUS VALENTINE'S STOREFRONT is a well-hidden crease in the streetscape, narrow, crowded at its shoulders, like a passenger forced to sit on the hump of the back seat.
Most barber shops are architectural afterthoughts, appended to larger structures, used as strip-mall filler, or banished to an ugly lot no one else wants.
Sure of its place in its north Ballard neighborhood, Valentine's Barber Shop is relatively lucky. Impatient old men, accustomed to rising early and keeping their hair high and tight, wait outside the shop for its doors to open not so promptly at 11 a.m. Boys, fond of the fades and crewcuts that are fashionably correct again, line up in the afternoon. His buddies keep it open past its closing time of 7 p.m.
For the grandfathers, the retirees, the jocks from Ballard and Ingraham High, and the low-rider car enthusiasts (a group to which Valentine belongs), the shop has become a place of commercial and communal relevance, sprung to life three years ago by a 22-year-old high-school dropout. He did not foresee it becoming the busiest joint on his block. The beauty shop next door is deserted.
It may be Seattle; it may be the times. Barber shops are once again a habit of the young and a ritual of males. In the more style-conscious quarters of the city, the old idea is being made new, barbering reinvented the way the town reinvented coffee and punk rock. Valentine adapted the old idea to fit into his vision of
The cycle from hip to square to hip again has taken about 30 years to complete. Some of the old shops couldn't wait that long.
In the middle of the city, a scarecrow of a building waits to die. What appear to once have been walls of stucco painted aqua green are burst open with lesions of rust, splattered with the insults of birds. Inside, buckets collect water that has infiltrated every corner, every seam, every joint of a room that smells of mildew even from the outer side of a locked door. The proprietor, who lives nearby, can be summoned by phone. She runs the barber shop. Only an occasional ring delays its certain end.
Nearby, another barber shop barely pays its rent. Lillian Manzano has a weak heart but her hands - a clipper in her left, a comb in her right, hair in front of her - play a minuet in staccato. The Aloha Barber Shop, at 14th and Pine, once drew most of its customers from Seattle University and the surrounding apartment buildings. Few come in anymore.
Manzano operates the shop alone. Her husband, who started the shop in 1983, died of cancer three years ago. In 1978, she left her children behind in the Philippines, settling in Salinas, Calif., where she assembled computer chips and harvested vegetables. She moved to Seattle in 1983 and has not once rued the circumstances that have left her to stand alone beside an empty chair waiting for her next customer or the 6:30 bus home to Rainier Beach, whichever comes first.
"I don't know if I can stay open," says Manzano, a short spike of a woman, her eyes magnified by thick glasses. "You need so many licenses now. Business is not so good. There's a lot of competition for haircuts.
"You know, a place down the street, they offer tattoos and piercing. Young guys, they like those things."
THE BARBER SHOP'S RE-EMERGENCE coincides with what analysts of popular culture say is the return of the manly man, a post-feminist whiplash that made a heroine of Martha Stewart, threatens to confer legitimacy on Larry Flynt, and has meant renewed popularity for muscle cars, martinis, scotch, cigars and the $10 haircut.
Wade Weigel, one of the owners of the Rudy's Barber Shop chain of three stores, is a 38-year-old man who looks 28 and earnestly believes Seattle is the best place to have a passion and take a risk.
Weigel is a former flight attendant whose layovers often kept him in London. Several years ago, while browsing in London's Kensington Market, a maze of stalls and merchants in the city's trendy West End, he came upon a long line of stylish young adults waiting to have their hair cut by a lone barber, whose business consisted of one chair and a box of tools.
Weigel took that simple, timeless idea, dressed it up for mass consumption, and with a partner opened the first Rudy's on Capitol Hill. The idea thrived and spread to Fremont and the University District. Investors have asked him, he said, to spawn more Rudy's shops in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Although reluctant, he is considering it.
"I'm all about the visual," Weigel said. "I want to give people more than a haircut. I want to give them an experience."
By which he means waiting on a vinyl bench backlit by Christmas lights with a copy of Playboy magazine, or playing Evel Knievel pinball, before getting your hair cut by a thoroughly pierced and dyed stylist named Skye or Spin, while inhaling incense, listening to the elevator music of heroin addicts and staring at a 50-foot collage dominated by images of young, bare flesh and the popular culture of the 1970s - Marcia Brady, Kiss, the Captain and Tenille. Recreating this particular part of America's past has recently become a profitable venture for many. Consider the popular band Phish, the Grateful Dead resurrected for the 1990s.
The surgeon general does not work at Rudy's, which stocks a dozen brands of cigarettes - a brand called Politix flashes the two-fingered peace sign and invites the smoker to "lighten up" - along with pipes your grandfather never smoked, whose purpose must be purely medicinal. On Capitol Hill and The Ave, Rudy's gives tattoos and used to do piercings. Tasty Shows, a ticketing agency trying to be the local alternative to TicketMaster, sells tickets at Rudy's.
"People from all over the world have come to our shop and say they've never seen anything like it," Weigel said. "I'm sure we'll be knocked off eventually."
The stores are placed in neighborhoods known to be incubators of working-class chic and meccas to the young. The Capitol Hill shop is neighbor to Linda's Tavern, the Puss Puss Cafe and a myriad of junk stores and nightclubs, which impart a Haight-by-the-Sound atmosphere. The Fremont shop shares role call with vintage clothing and antique stores. The U-District shop is flanked by a tattoo parlor and two thrift stores. In each case, the context is uniform. Rudy's is a perfect condiment for the tastes of its mostly young clientele.
Rudy's strength reveals its flaw. It is an ode to affectations, highly self-conscious if not pretentious. It has not so much brought back the barber shop as it has brought back, in the language of our times, the barber-shop thing. The chairs are real, but they face the wall instead of the room, as they still do in traditional barber shops. The tonics and oils in the display case date to the 1950s, and, although for sale, are mostly for show.
Rudy's Barbershopland is full of props, its greasy-kids-stuff and Brady Bunch platform satisfying a craving for nostalgia that in the 1990s seems to have become extreme. The good old days are no longer high school but grade school, relived through the return of lunch boxes, Slinkys and Schoolhouse Rock, those instructional cartoons that taught kids of the 1970s about grammar and math. The baby-vixen look - picture Courtney Love - is in, and baby photos are hit album covers.
To its credit, Rudy's is becoming a gathering place, as old barber shops were. By no means, though, is it about just getting a cheap haircut. Supercuts, Hair Masters and the like have been around for years. Rudy's provides a stylized alternative, a nongeneric haircut.
RUDY'S TRIES TO LOOK homemade and haphazard. The old places, like Sig's at Third and Lenora in downtown Seattle, really are.
The two plastic palms on either end of Siegfried Mathenski's barber shop are 50 years old, he says, and by the looks of them haven't been dusted since they were manufactured. Sig's chairs were made about the same time as the USS Missouri. He got his license in 1932, the year he graduated from O'Dea High School. He does short hair. If your hair is too fancy, he'll congenially tell you to go somewhere else. He doesn't take credit cards and he has no phone because it would only interfere with the flow of business. Customers just show up. The simplicity and consistency of his product have brought longevity to Sig's.
Like Sig's, Smitty's Barber Shop in Ballard has survived by not changing and by being lucky.
The section of 15th Avenue Northwest near Smitty's used to contain eight barber shops, said Fred Paschal, who bought Smitty's in 1978. Only two remain. The state of Washington has on file 2,647 barber licenses. It is unable to provide any comparative figures, but Paschal remembers about 600 barbers going out of business in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
He pumped gas and remodeled houses during the shop's lean years. Smitty's has been around since 1944 and has survived partly because of the cohesive nature of its neighborhood.
"At least four barbers have opened up around here (in Ballard) the last 10 years and two of them used to work for us," Paschal said.
Barber shops are mostly neighborhood businesses, and still are greatest in number in Ballard and West Seattle, probably because of the preponderance of older citizens. But where changing demographics create new urban living spaces, new barber shops follow.
Dave Markovich opened The Belltown Barber four years ago as the high-rises in that part of downtown multiplied. His shop, in the ground floor of a new apartment building, is large by barber standards. He has room for a desk, with plenty of floor left over. His chair is an ophthalmologist's chair, for which he traded a set of golf clubs. On a busy day, and he has many, he can do 15 haircuts by lunchtime. His collection of business cards show the heads buzzed here: a car salesman, taxi driver, concierge, yacht broker, piano technician.
Markovich, 42, is a stocky man who holds the rank of blue sash in the martial art of Wun Hop Kuen Do. He described himself as a bad employee but a good worker, in other words a typical barber.
"It seems like all barbers have something else they do," he said. "Martial arts is my thing. I'd love someday to have a martial-arts studio combined with a barber shop."
Markovich used to cut with the guy who now owns Rick's Barber Shop in West Seattle. His thing is exotic pets, macaws and snakes. Butch's Gun Shop on Aurora Avenue North used to sell haircuts and ammo, before Butch retired. Now his son runs the business and sticks to selling guns, fishing tackle and paintball equipment. That's barbering, a means to another end.
BARBER SHOPS AS SOCIAL conduits are older than Jesus. In ancient Greece and Rome, barber shops were, for men, centers of conversation and disseminators of information. Barber shops outlasted the fall of Rome and the Dark Ages, and now they have survived long hair, big hair and $50 hair.
A revival has beset our white communities. In black America, there was never need for one.
Stalin Harrison nearly lives in his store, Stalin's Style Centre Shoppe in the South End's Brighton neighborhood. Harrison has operated shops at 12th and Yesler, Rainier and Genessee and, for the past four years, on Martin Luther King Jr. Way South, where his business hides in a plain white building with a flat roof and no sign whatsoever. He calls it the no-name shop, laughing because it hasn't hurt business a bit. He has been known to stay open until 2 a.m. to finish his last haircut.
Overtime and hunger pangs naturally converge, but are diverted by the pantry in back. The customers' chairs occasionally hold napping barbers. A woman named Peaches is both receptionist and spot cook and designated brunt of office jokes. The only music played here is jazz and on a warm summer night, you might smell chicken and ribs grilling behind the shop.
"In the black community, barber shops never died out," Harrison said. "We are the meeting place, the greeting place, the place to exchange ideas away from home, work or school. It's a place to talk politics, religion, economics. It's a happening."
In the days of segregation, churches and barber shops were among the few places black Americans could congregate and socialize and thus evolved as centers of conversation, forcing black barbers to expand their repertoire of hair styles as they changed.
"The key to my success has been versatility," Harrison said.
It is the prideful badge of the new barber, most of whom also hold licenses in cosmetology but would shave pets before becoming beauticians.
BEYOND ALL THE THINGS that have contributed to the return of barbering - fashion, machismo, nostalgia, urban renewal, personal modesty - the most enduring barber ethic is sincerity: service without politeness, contrivance or hair spray.
In north Ballard, Thaddeus Valentine's place preserves the plainness and grit of traditional barber shops, yet feels distinctly young. It does not, like Rudy's, confuse character with kitsch. Its owner is a white kid with an inflection that bends the way of his South End upbringing. The sandpaper in his voice, the chisel in his stare remind you of Ice-T.
The walls of his one-chair shop are galleries of graffiti art, a favor his friends did him, a misdemeanor were it on a freeway offramp. On the floor is a boom box the size of a file cabinet, a backup for his stereo system. He plays rap, hip hop and acid jazz, not loud, but you can hear it above the drone of electric clippers. His waiting area is a bench 15 feet long, a necessity because of his growing patronage, a shame because it obscures some of his friends' best creations.
His passion is cars, low-riders in general, specifically his 1968 Chevy Impala. Someday, Valentine hopes to have a garage behind his barber shop.
His teenage years were spent mostly in juvenile folly, getting into "a whole bunch of trouble," by which he means the law. His was a life without a plan, without much foundation and few foreseeable opportunities beyond auto repair, the one interest he had an aptitude for and the means to obtain. He grew up in Renton but moved to Los Angeles when he was 17 after a girl broke his heart.
"I was a kid on the streets (of L.A.) without a job . . . . What are you going to do to get by?" he said, giving an answer with a question. "The youth-on-youth crime is crazy there and no one cares. I came back with my tail between my legs."
Lust, in the beginning, directed him to beauty school. Given a choice between auto-repair school - all men - or beauty school - all women - he chose the women.
"I used to have a beautiful girlfriend but I was messing around with all the women at the beauty school and she knew," he said. "She left and of course that's when you realize, `Man I really loved that girl.' That's OK. I got my shop. That's my No. 1 love."
Hugo Kugiya is a Pacific Magazine staff writer. Harley Soltes is Pacific's staff photographer.
Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.