Butch Hair Wax

Reminiscing: My Old Barber Shops

Barber Shop PoleChrome Arm ChairI have vivid memories of the first barber shop I visited as a very young child—a tiny place, only 5 or 6 chrome plated chairs with little padded arm rests for men to wait their turn. Unlike the picture, the seat and back were black. The shop only had room for 2 barbers. As a young child I thought these men were ancient, but they were probably in their 40s.

I wore a flat top, or crew cut, as a little kid, and the waxy goo they put in my hair to make it stand straight up was pinkish and smelled awesome! I loved and vividly remember that smell! I’ve never smelled it since.

The barbers used Vitalis in my grandfather’s and father’s hair. I remember that smell too. My grandfather’s hair always had a razor sharp comb part.

Butch Hair Wax


Vitalis Hair Tonic

In second grade we moved and stopped going there. The place has long since been leveled. Then we started going to Walter’s Barber Shop. His shop was a long, thin, rectangle. By comparison, it was huge! A cash register with large metal push buttons and numbers that popped up when the buttons were pushed sat atop a chest-high shellacked wooden box built just for the purpose. It was in the middle of a long row of wooden chairs where the men sat, waited, and talked up a storm. Along the other long wall were 4 or 5 barber chairs. Walter always worked in the middle chair where he was close to the register.

I recall, as a young kid, watching the various ways men crossed their legs. Yes, I was seated in Walter’s Barber Shop that I first crossed mine!

In its day, before “the wet head is dead” advertising campaign, 4 or 5 barbers worked in Walter’s shop. Walter himself had strikingly red hair and was a nervous type that loved to talk. I say he was the nervous type because he talked very fast, changed the subject constantly, and never stopped snipping the scissors at lightning speeds. I swear he snipped them at least half the time without cutting a single hair. Maybe his eye sight was bad. I recall when he started wearing glasses.

In the early days, when business was booming, Walter was “cutting edge.” He bought these bizarre looking clipper contraptions that stood between 2 barber chairs, to be shared by the two barbers. Each one had a strangely shaped vacuum cleaner tank at the bottom with a metal pipe sticking about 4 feet straight up. At the end of the metal pipe, on opposing sides, rested two clippers with hoses attached to them. When a barber picked up the clipper to use it, the vacuum cleaner came on and sucked the hair down the hose as the barber cut. I mean really! What were they thinking!

But then the wet head (Vitalis and the like) was declared dead. Men stopped wearing hats and could now wear their hair longer* without worrying about “hat head.” Men started going to hair salons (name changed from beauty parlors) to get their hair “styled.” Walter was not a happy camper! He railed against the “sissy” hair salons and men blow drying their hair like a girl. In a short period of time, business began to drop off significantly.

Then, the unthinkable happened: the city built low income housing (They called it a housing project back in the day.) in the large empty field directly across the street from the shopping center. Walter was “fit to be tied” as they say in the south. Eventually, Walter was the only barber in his barber shop. My father got his hair cut by Walter until Walter retired and closed his shop, not too many years before my father’s death.

Once I left home, I stopped going to barber shops as they were hard to find. I didn’t start back until moving to Manhattan Beach, where I went to the Tonsorial Parlor. (I’ve blogged before about how I like that barber shop.) After moving to Sausalito, I’ve had a difficult time finding a place where I could get a consistently decent haircut for a reasonable price. (No, I don’t consider $90 reasonable!)

After over 2 years of searching, I just found a place I really like: J. P. Kempt Barber and Social on Divisadero Street. Deniz gave me an excellent haircut. He even layered it despite my cow lick and increasingly wavy, lumpy hair. I knew he had to be a pro because of how he constantly flipped the scissors around in his hands—like a proficient drummer does his drum sticks when waiting to play. Deniz has been cutting hair for over 20 years**.

Additionally, this barber shop places a hot, steaming towel (with menthol or eucalyptus?) on your face before placing it on the back of your neck. They then get out the shaving cream, lather your neck line, and razor shave your neck/hair line. That’s when I started thinking about the barber shops of yore. They did that for the men in the first barber shop I ever went to. Even Walter did that before the wet head was dead and “the neighborhood just went to hell, went to hell—I’m telling you.”

J. P. Kempt Barber and Social on Divisadero Street is a busy place. I guess they have between 8 and 10 barbers working. Nine are listed on their site. I arrived just as they opened on a weekday and within minutes they were slammed. It was a great barber shop experience. Tim likes!

* My family was ultra fundamentalist. Men kept their hair very short because that meant they were godly. (Jeeze!)
**Deniz’ bio from their web site: “Deniz is a multicultural, San Francisco native with over 20 years of experience in hairstyling. He has cut and styled hair for television, movies, music videos and fashion shows. He has worked in cities all over the world including Los Angeles, New York City, Copenhagen, Paris and Istanbul. Having been most inspired by timeless style and meticulous craftsmanship, he now focuses his craft on classic men’s styles at J.P. Kempt and works to give each client a look specifically tailored for them.”

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