Maureen Mcmullen, MSUM Multimedia Journalism
In the early days of the barber industry, barbers acted as surgeons as well as shave and haircut experts. Between blood-letting, tooth-pulling and abscess-lancing, medieval barbers were tasked with a slew of unsavory responsibilities.
“Barber surgeons”, as they were originally referred to, handled aspects of medicine that physicians were too squeamish to carry out; namely, blood-letting.
As blood-letting fell out of practice in the 19th century, barbers shifted focus to a more refined calling: making men look good.
Barbers provide luxury, expertise
John Larson has been making men look good at 8thStreet Barber in downtown Fargo
since 1969. Epitomizing the traditional barbershop, 8th Street Barber has been open since 1923.
The shop has serviced nine generations worth of hair trends, while still maintaining the fundamentals of the barber trade: haircuts, shampoos, and the all-important straight-edge razor shave.
Reserved exclusively for licensed barbers, straight-edge razors are a key factor that differentiates barbers from cosmetologist. The tool is used for neck shaves as well as close face-shaves, typically accompanied by a hot towel on the face to soften the hairs.
“A shave is more of a relaxation thing than anything else,” said Larson. “I would say in this day and age, it would be more for the luxury.”
Even with the comforting heat of a hot towel, having a very sharp blade in close proximity to one’s face and throat could create a nerve-wracking experience.
Thankfully for Larson’s customers, he is not only an expert at styling men’s hair, but also at making people feel comfortable. His amicability and conversational skills are characteristics he says are vital for a barber to have.
Larson said, “You’ve got to be a good communicator; you know, talk to people.”
Sister master the straight-razor shave
Even though barbers have been masters of both communication and the straight-razor
shave for centuries, the blade can still be intimidating to first-timers. Chelsey Ehlen, owner of Everett’s Barbershop on Broadway, is no stranger to straight-razor shyness from her customers.
“Today I had a kid that’s a freshman in college at NDSU, and it was his first time in a barbershop, first time getting a neck shave. He was so nervous, and then he gets done and said, ‘That was so awesome! That felt so good!’” Ehlen said. “You just kind of have to reassure them that you’re a professional and you know what you’re doing; this isn’t Sweeny Todd.”
Ehlen’s and her sister, Maureen, both barbers at Everett’s, have a background deeply rooted in the coiff-concious trade, which can be traced to Moler Barber College in Fargo.
“My parents went to barber school there [Moler Barber College] and then they bought the barber college from my grandparents in 1990,” said Ehlen. “It’s been in our lives our whole life, so it’s been pretty natural.”
Mixing Nostalgic tradition with modern specialization
Younger men may see barbershops as something their grandfathers did. This, however, could not be further from the truth. With an ever-growing affinity for vintage fashion, music and art, the return of classical hair styles seems only logical.
“I would say that the hair styles now are quite a bit like they were back in the 60s,” said Larson, who’s been barbering for more than 40 years. “They’re shorter, but they’re not as greasy as they were. In the 50s and 60s they wore lots of grease and stuff in their hair.”
Barbershops’ popularity has spread among men of all ages, appealing particularly to young adults who prefer a more specified, grown-up approach to haircuts than a hair salon geared towards women.
One such hairstyle from the past that’s become popular recently is a variation of the pompadour, a style sporting a voluminous bump in the front of the hair.
“They [barbershops] are definitely making a comeback. I think guys in their 20s and 30s are realizing what a barbershop is, when they kind of grew up with their mom taking them to the salon,” said Ehlen. “So, I think that guys are realizing how cool it is to come to a barber shop and get a quick haircut at a really good price.”
Specific needs call for specific skill
The barbering field is one that, though it’s maintained many of its traditions, is constantly evolving with culture and fashion. While Everett’s and 8th Street Barber offer a classical style of barbering, Skill Cutz Barbershop in Fargo offers nontraditional services that are otherwise hard to find in the F-M area, including intricate clipper designs for both men and women that shift barbering from a mastering a style to an art form.
“Those are pretty much self-taught. We had some people who were cool with letting us try out some things and it just developed,” Brendan LaFrance, Co-Owner of Skill Cutz, said of the designs.
Along with creating hair art, LaFrance and his co-owner, Wil Dort have cater to haired of any texture for six years.
Their specialization has proven to be a rarity in North Dakota and Minnesota, brings in clientele from other cities and even across the state.
Fergus Falls and Valley City even drive down here. We get people from
the oil field in Dickinson; we’ve got people from all over coming here,” said Dort. “There’s nothing like it because anybody from any background could walk in and get a haircut and get it done the way they want it.”Their services range from traditional fades, straight-razor shaves and clipper cuts to less conservative styles like high tops and mohawks, exhibiting the multi-faceted nature of modern barbering
What makes a good barber?
It seems pretty obvious that a good barber should have a firm grasp at how to give a good haircut, be personable, and give a good straight-razor shave without inflicting serious injury, but there’s much more to being a barber than that.
“There’s so many different styles now. People don’t just wear their hair a certain way anymore. You’ve got to be creative to be a barber,” said Larson, a seasoned barber who’s seen generations of changing styles.
It is vital that a barber can keep up interesting conversation— better yet, a good barber knows how to bond with customers and keep a relationship going with them.
“When we meet, people come in and tell us about their life stories, we share our life with them as well,” said Dort, who’s owned Skill Cutz Barbershop for six years. “It helps us to connect with them, helps them stay around. They don’t even need to get a haircut to come in here and hang around.”