A Cut Above
No, not because I don't like it, but because what other reason would I have to drop into one of San Francisco's constellation of wondrous barbershops?
My fascination starts with the barbershop pole, those red-and-white spiraling things hanging out front. Turns out they're not modeled after candy canes, but dripping blood. According to websites like BarberPole.com that fueled my geeking out on the subject, from the medieval era up until the eighteenth century, barbers not only cut hair but also offered customers bloodletting services.
I also love all those barbering tools: the straightedge razors, vibrating metal massagers, foam dispensers, and black combs bobbing in turquoise-colored antiseptic barbicide. Then there are the barbers themselves – the everyman's psychologist dishing out advice as quickly as their patrons dish out their problems.
I wanted to know more about this world. So I packed my camera and hit the street looking for San Francisco’s most storied barbershops – and I did it all without cutting off a single inch of hair.
The windows of Original Palace Barber Shop sport posters from the '70s warning men about the perils of letting their hair grow out without the advice of a barber. Jack Perez, a seasoned and friendly hairstylist, met me at the door wearing a Bluetooth headset and scissor charm necklaces. He offered to let me have a look around the shop. First opened in 1965, Original Palace is crammed with gels, perfumes, and bottles of shampoos that date back a handful of decades. Jack told me that his goal is to get his customers to "unwind a little bit for the minutes that they're here." I declined his offer for a face massage.
A Businessman's Haircut is located in the transit tunnel near Montgomery and Market, close to the BART station exit. There, Benjamin Kaliko, the shop's owner and sole barber, welcomed me next to a rainbow rack of umbrellas he sells for $6. In the background, a busker down the hall was singing "My Cherie Amour" on repeat. This is a small shop, but there’s enough space to house a hidden bookshelf of skin mags. On the wall, Benjamin has displayed two of his table-tennis competition awards. He’s originally from Ukraine, and wants to pass the business on to his daughter. He told me it's such an easy job, easier than the work of being married for 35 years, which, he exhaled, "is very hard work.”
Male Image Barber Shop – with its wood-paneled walls, rainbow flag, and pencil drawings of the Village People – is exactly what I’d expect of a barbershop that opened in the Castro 32 years ago. Philip Stover has been cutting hair here since 1982. He told me that the red, white, and blue bandannas wrapped around the pole that spin in the window were left over from the owner's leather shop, which is now closed. I asked what subjects come up in conversation and Philip answered, definitely not sports; usually politics and relationship stuff. When I pressed for specific stories, he said all the good ones were too explicit to share.
Most of you have probably noticed Willy's Barber Shop, located next to the Make-Out Room. Willy’s is a popular place with locals, so much so that the shop isn’t really looking for new customers – or publicity. When I went in to take a shot of Willy's hairstyle posters, which date back to the '80s, the owner stopped me. I persisted in asking permission to shoot the shop, and on my third try, I got a few words in with a customer who was getting his first Willy's haircut – a smooth fade. "I'm all about supporting local businesses, 'cause all these Supercuts are taking over," this mid-30s customer told me. He also mentioned he had big plans to run for mayor so that he could make BART run all night.
New Chicago #1 used to be in the Lower Haight, and #2 is in the Western Addition. New Chicago Barbershop #3 is in the Fillmore, across the street from Yoshi’s. On a Saturday morning the shop was full, but I was still given a tour from Reggie Pettus, a 73-year-old barber originally from Mobile, Alabama. He has been cutting hair here since 1970, and he told me he used to get some famous regular customers, dignitaries like Rev. Amos Brown and Rev. Cecil Williams from Glide. He led me to the back of the shop, past the shoeshine station, to meet Jordan Ross, a barber who used to get his hair cut from Reggie back when he was a little kid. Reggie explained that oftentimes the shop is mistaken for a barber school because "people see this as a sort of training grounds."
King of Kutz is on a quiet suburban block of Ocean Avenue next to a beauty salon. In the window hangs a poster of some amazing graphic cuts – the kind that look as though an artist has screen printed a scene onto someone’s head. Andre Curry, the shop's owner and only barber, showed me portfolios of the designs (SF skyline, Ice Cube, SpongeBob) he’s done on clients. He knew he wanted to be a barber ever since he got a really bad cut from one as a kid. He started practicing on willing friends when he was in high school, but only "started getting good" at it a few years ago.
The Homies vending machine is the only thing preventing Emilio's Barber Shop from looking like a perfectly preserved midcentury barbershop. (That and the plastic action figurines lining the storefront windowsill.) Emilio A. Jojola, the soft-spoken, youthful owner, wanted me to shoot him only as he was cutting hair. He was hustling through customers. There was already a three-person wait at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday. I learned that the shop’s been there since 1948, but Emilio took over two years ago. "When the economy took a downturn, people started coming to the barbershop more, for the conversation, a place for community, a place to talk.” He pointed to the client he was working on and laughed, “This guy has always got the best stories, but they’re not PG-rated.”
Dick's International Barber is on a block of Geary Street that's lined with Russian bakeries, Irish bars, and Japanese curry restaurants. When I ventured there on a particularly foggy summer day, a closed sign hung in the window, despite the fact that the shop was very much open. There was a two-hour wait for a cut. Francisco Velasco, the owner, bought the place from his uncle Dick in ’93 and has kept the original pole and sign since the initial opening in 1969. The two barbers working, Francisco’s nephew and son, were silently speeding through their clients in 10 minutes or less. I situated myself between a Russian family looking on as their teenage son got his hair buzzed and another guy who told me he doesn't even live in the city, but comes to Dick's because it’s the only place that does a military cut right.
F.S.C. Barber the new shop on the corner of 18th and Mission, is the third location in the Freemans Sporting Club chain – the other two are in New York. It’s managed by the shops’ owner’s brother Jonah Buffa. When I wandered in, Jonah was greeting customers and flipping records on a turntable that was pumping The Replacements. Of all the shops I’d hit up, F.S.C. was the grandest, especially with its modern take on turn-of-the-century décor. I learned that aside from the waiting area bench crafted by East Bay designer Brian Edy and the front counter made by the shop’s owner Sam Buffa,the furniture was part of an antique barber set. It came complete with chairs, a shoeshine bench, and a certificate of authenticity indicating the set was originally created by Koch's furniture company for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The barbers had a similar old-Americana craftsman vibe with their flannels, suspenders, and well-kept beards. Just as I was framing my last shot, F.S.C.’s first celebrity client, Joe Montana, walked in, saw me, and quickly jumped out of the lens’ way. Once Jonah set the star up with a barber, he whispered to me that as far as Bay Area celebrities go, "that's kind of the ultimate."
When I wandered up to The Shop there were a bunch of dudes smoking out front. Owner Giovanni (who goes by Gio) Ramirez opened it two and a half years ago with a $7,000 grant from the H.O.M.E.Y. (Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth) program. He decided to set up next to his friend Trigger's tattoo shop. The place feels like a perpetual Super Bowl party. The walls are lined with 49ers posters and memorabilia; there’s a minifridge stocked with beer; and a flat-screen TV pumps out beats playing from a cable digital music station. All of the barbers and customers I met that Thursday evening grew up in San Francisco, including Carlos, the biggest and most tatted hair stylist I’ve ever seen. He was shaving a customer to better reveal the giant 49ers logo tattooed on his head. I told them I’d seen Joe Montana getting his hair cut at F.S.C. the day before. Gio flipped, "Dude, we would've given him that cut for free!"
Get a haircut and a backstory on a local barbershop by visiting one of the places listed above.