John’s Barbershop

The barbershop’s walls were cheap wood panel, yellowed with nicotine, whose warmth was offset by the bracing blue aquarium gravel in the ashtray. My dad would take me here every few weeks so we could both get trimmed up and sit for a while watching the venerable tube TV dozing in the corner, rabbit ears lopsided. College football or golf – interrupted by local news, which seemed to matter then – was always on when we were there. If the volume wasn’t up for the game, then a portable radio played the local country station. The magazine rack was overflowing with Car & Driver and Field & Stream – nothing controversial and definitely nothing risque aside from the single untouched issue of Maxim that all the old guys were too embarrassed to look at.

John, the owner and senior of the two barbers, had tried a few times to introduce some novelties to pick up business: a now-vacant fish tank in the back was meant to be an interesting diversion, but only managed to be the supplier of ashtray gravel; a shoe-shine stand appeared once, was used a handful of times (legend says), and disappeared silently a month later; a third barber, nervous and green, was hired briefly, but he, like the tank and the stand, just didn’t fit the pattern of the little world that John set up over decades. All of the things in his space that had persisted were expressions of his nature: comfortable but somewhat austere, exactly like his crisp white short-sleeve work shirt.

All of this was perfectly “barbershop” and it’s hard to find these days, and impossible to consciously replicate. There are plenty of salons which attempt to do so, but it always feels brittle like it will all blow away when the winds of fashion change. I don’t need to get a $50 cut in a mahogany cigar lounge or in a reclaimed-palette Edison-bulb New Americana den. That’s just the memeification of masculinity, just another symptom of our lack of intergenerational community. John rarely worried about keeping his shop up-to-date, which is why it was timeless. His calling was to keep haircuts precise, fast and cheap in a tidy shop stuck in a lower-middle class strip mall. As such, he was a complete success.

I’d heard a few years ago that he sold his shop to help pay for his late wife’s treatments. The feeling of loss swells alongside my nostalgia. John himself is gone now, but I keep the memory of him and his little shop as an image of the nobility of common men who care for their own and do their jobs well.