The Cutting Edge
It used to be that you could go to a barber, get a haircut, shave, and a tooth pulled. A barber's razor served the dual function of shearing away stubble and performing minor surgery. Back in the day, men hung out in barbershops all the time, getting sharp and shooting the breeze. Now in the age of Supercuts, unisex hairdressers, and metrosexual male salons, has the era of the old-timey shave and a haircut fallen by the wayside?
The professional shave, in particular, seems like a relic of the past – lost in an era of disposable razors and trendy scruff. I never quite understood the appeal of the latter. As my grandmother once told me, “I don't like it when a man grows a beard. It makes his mouth look like a pussy.”
I set out to do my grandma proud and find barbershops in San Francisco that still service a lost art of male grooming: the straight razor shave.
What better place to look first than the Financial District – where I imagined puffed-up hard chargers out on their three martini lunches stopping in for a shave and a shoeshine before the next shareholder meeting. I envisioned them chatting up mustachioed barbers in stark white barbershops with nothing but a striped pole outside and Playboy magazines inside for decoration.
Original Palace Barber Shop, though technically south of Market, is close enough to cater to the well-heeled wheelers and dealers of the FiDi. Inside, I found a small, cramped interior, shelves cluttered with expired hair products, and a letter board listing the standard barbershop fare: haircuts, beard trims and, bingo, shaves. But wait a minute – where were the cigar-chomping silverback execs? In place of the jovial mustachioed barbers were two unassuming middle-aged women. I guess my vision of the old-timey barbershop really was a thing of the past.
My barber Teresa had a kind, motherly air about her. I told her to be gentle – it was my first time. Everything was going great. She wrapped a hot towel around my face and pressed it tight against my skin. She smothered my face with rich, warm lather. Then I opened my eyes. Teresa was standing over me with a disposable BIC razor.
“Waitaminute, what about the straight razor? Lady, if I wanted a disposable razor, I got a Mach3 at home!”
“No, we don't use straight razors here. It's so much better isn’t it? Safer.”
The other barber chimed in about how since the ’80s nobody uses straight razors anymore. Liability. AIDS and everything.
Nevertheless, Teresa gave me a pretty good shave. Smooth as a baby's patoot – with one exception. She missed the little spot on my upper lip just below the nostrils. The part you have to lift up your nose to get at. It probably never occurred to someone who doesn’t have to shave her own face. I guess shaves are like what they say about blowjobs – only a man can really give you a good one. Still, having no empirical evidence for either statement, I continued on my quest to get the perfect shave.
I may have found it at my next stop. Having heard of an upscale Turkish barber who shaves the likes of Willem Dafoe, I headed over to Ahmet's Barber & Hair Styling. I You-tubed “authentic Turkish shaves” to prepare myself for the experience. It looked amazing. Massages, hair tweezing with little twisted strings, and something that looked like a little flaming marshmallow on a stick that’s beat against the sides of your face. I was pumped.
Ahmet's looks more like a high-end salon than an old-fashioned barbershop. Aside from Ahmet, all the workers are women. Fancy products lined the walls, and next to each plush leather barber chair was a sleek Sharper Image–style electric massager. Ahmet looked like the kind of guy who knew a thing or two about shaving. Old-world, well-groomed, but with a five o'clock shadow already peeking out at noon, he’s the kind of man who shaves twice a day, like Humbert Humbert, minus the kiddie fiddling.
Ahmet dismissed my interest in getting an authentic Turkish shave. “A shave is a shave. If you get it in Turkey, it is a Turkish shave.” He told me that the flaming marshmallow was just for old men with hair in their ears, and that the threading, though it did create a “beauutiful” beard line along the cheek, was too painful and I wouldn't like it. Fine then, give me a shave that I will like.
He proceeded to blow my mind. Two hot lathers; both hot and cold towels; head, face, back, and neck massage; a rubdown with a variety of man-smelling lotions; and aftershaves including his signature Turkish lemon-flower cologne – how could I go back to the Mach3 after this?
According to Ahmet, cheap disposable razors, coupled with the rise of unisex hair salons have led to the decline of the men's barbershop and the classic shave. You have to be a real licensed barber – not a stylist – to give straight razor shaves. Ahmet pointed to his diploma from barber school in Turkey, prominently displayed next to an autographed poster of the Blue Angels. He is proud of his profession, and it shows in his expert shaves.
The next place I checked out was on recommendation from a classmate. “Go to Brothers. Ask for Ray,” she told me. I made a beeline to Geneva Avenue to see what this place was all about.
There are actually two “Brothers” and I went into the wrong one. The doors are right next to each other; they share a common sign and are connected in the back, but the difference is immediately apparent. At first I walked into new-school Brothers. A young guy was giving another young guy a line-up. The Filipino version of America’s Best Dance Crew was on the TV. Ray? He was next door. I walked outside and through the adjacent door. Old-school Brothers. A mom with a baby sat at the receptionist counter watching a soap opera in Tagalog. The look was classic barbershop. From the posters showing various men’s haircuts and fades, to the bottle of vodka on the shelf for sterilizing equipment. Ray, a middle-aged Filipino man with neat, slicked back hair and a no-nonsense demeanor was busy finishing up with a customer. There was another, older barber reading a newspaper who looked up expectantly when I entered, but I was waiting for Ray.
The wait was worth it. Though not as gentle as Ahmet – Ray’s face massage was pinchy and rough, and he pulled the corners of my mouth up like a farmer checking a horse’s teeth – he was meticulous and skilled. He's not much for conversation, but who really wants to talk when you got a straight razor at your throat? He shaved much higher up on my face, almost to my eyes. At one point he even shaved the outside of the right half of my nose –just the right half. The reasons for which I prefer to remain a mystery. The aftershave and lotion he slathered on me smelled like a clean grandpa. I asked him if he still did a lot of shaves these days.
He was nonchalant, as if the age of the metrosexual had never dawned in his world. At least at Brothers, it will probably stay that way.
Having seen what the old-school barbershop is all about, I wanted to get a preview of the next generation of San Francisco barbers learning their trade. Inside the Bayview Barber College were about eight chairs with several young students honing their skills on a mostly black clientele. I did a double take when I saw the prices on the letter board. Eight bucks for a haircut or a fade, throw in six more for designs; five dollar shaves; and two-fifty for a mustache trim. They even do perms and color, but despite seeing one female student, it was clear that this shop was a man’s domain. The walls were lined with posters of hairstyles, and in front of the chairs hung a couple of pinup posters of voluptuous women put out by the Wahl hair clipper company.
You pay first at the Barber College, so I slapped my five bucks down and asked for a shave. A couple of old timers hanging around whistled and chuckled. Only the best, most qualified students were ready to perform this most difficult and risky procedure. They sent me to their star student.
Diondre probably wouldn't have made a bad linebacker in another life, but he chose to become a barber. He probably made the right choice, with his relaxed demeanor and gift of gab. Diondre's enthusiasm and dedication to the profession are apparent. He likes doing straight razor shaves, and hopes to open his own old-school barbershop someday. He told me he thinks the young guys these days want a return to the classic barbershop feel, shaves included. He gave a damn good shave too – sure he stuck his finger in my eye a couple of times, but hey, for five bucks, I'm not complaining. At the end, he added a nice touch that none of the other barbers had done – a pat down with talcum powder – to soothe the skin and seal in the moisture. Barbers should always add this crucial step, he told me. I guess the new generation may have something to teach the old guys after all.
Check out Original Palace Barber Shop for the smoothest shave you can get without a two-inch blade. Ahmet's Barber and Hair Styling will spoil you and make all your future shaves feel like you're scraping your face with a rusty spork. At Brothers Haircut choose between old school (left door) and new school (right door). Or get your shave on the cheap and help a student get some practice at the Bayview Barber College.
Photography via the Library of Congress , except for "Brother's Keeper" via North Dakota State University Libraries Institute for Regional Studies & Archives .