Image from Joe Leland
Unfortunately, many men today are missing out on the benefits of having a regular barber. As the barbershop tradition has faded, modern men just end up going to the closest unisex salon to get their hair cut. And each time they get they go, they end up with a different stylist and are forced to explain over and over again how they’d like it done. But “a little off the sides” means one thing to one stylist and another thing to another stylist. Stylists also have the tendency (in my experience) to try to correct what they see as mistakes that a previous barber/stylist made. Consequently, a man who goes to a unisex chain salon walks out with a completely different haircut at each visit. Not a good thing if you’re trying to maintain a consistent image.
Every man needs a reliable, skilled barber in his life. Having a regular barber will ensure that you get a consistent, sharp haircut with every visit. You can go in for a trim before a big interview without gambling on whether or not you’ll come out looking like you were attacked by a weed whacker.
Good barbers have a memory like an elephant. As you visit a first rate barber regularly, he’ll become familiar with the many contours of your head and the complexities of your hair and will know how to cut and style your hair just the way you like it. You’ll be able to walk in and simply ask for “the usual.” Plus, your barber can become a good friend, someone you can be comfortable shooting the breeze with and look forward to seeing every few weeks.
But how does a man go about forging this important relationship and finding a good barber? How do you know when a barber is a keeper? To help steer you in the right direction, I called up The Gent’s Place in Frisco, TX and talked to Ben Davis, the owner, and his master barber with 20+ years experience, Von Jackson.
Before You Enter the Shop
Ask around. If you’re new in town or aren’t happy with your current barber situation, the first thing you should do is ask people you know for recommendations. Especially seek out recommendations from men who always seem to have awesome haircuts. Chances are they have a great barber that they’d be more than happy to recommend to you.
Search online. After asking people you know for barber recommendations, check out what the hive mind of the web has to say. In order to find more masculine establishments as opposed to foo-fooey unisex places, Ben and Von suggested that you run Google searches with keywords like “men’s grooming in x-city” or “barbershops in x-town.” Also, check out barbershop reviews on sites like citysearch.com and yelp.com. Finally, be sure to take a gander at the AoM’s world famous barbershop locator. Hundreds of shops have been added to it and the database grows daily.
When You’re at the Shop
Look for confidence. This is a man you’re going to be trusting your noggin to, so you want a barber who’s supremely confident in his abilities to sculpt your hair into a masterpiece. Confident barbers will look you in the eye, smile, and give you a firm manly handshake when you first walk in. If a barber you visit for the first time avoids eye contact and gives you the limp fish, it could be a warning sign that he’s not that confident in his abilities.
You also want a barber who can confidently tell you what would work best for you depending on your requests and your face shape and structure. Barbers without much experience or confidence in their craft will do exactly what the client says, even if what the client asks for will look like crap. A good barber will have the stones to speak up and offer suggestions to the client to help guide them to something more suited for their face. Of course, if the client insists on his crappy cut, a good barber will do exactly what the client asks.
Check how well groomed the barber is. Give a new barber the once over. How is his personal grooming? Chances are if the barber has a crummy haircut and shave, he gives crummy haircuts and shaves. How is his clothing? Pressed and clean? This kind of attention to detail will likely carry over into the haircuts he gives. A great barber takes his personal appearance seriously because he’s in the business of helping men with their personal and professional image.
Take note of the shop’s cleanliness. If just looking in a certain shop makes your head itch, turn and walk the other way. Of course, most city health regulations have eliminated the “lice shops” that were once common in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but sometimes shops get lost in the bureaucracy, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.
In addition to the checking how sanitary the place is, just look for overall organization and order. Again, a barber with an eye for detail will make sure his shop and working area are in tiptop shape. If you notice that a barber has tools all over the place and mounds of hair under the chair, that kind of sloppiness may end up reflected in your hair cut.
Does the barber ask the right questions? When you sit down in the barber chair and the barber puts the hair drape around your neck, listen to see if the barber asks the right questions. Davis says if the first question the barber asks you is, “What number do you want on the sides?” run out of the shop immediately. Barbers who rely solely on clipper guards to cut hair tend to be lazy and unskilled. Besides, haircuts done with just clippers tend to be mediocre. I mean, come on. You can give yourself a haircut if you know what number guard to put on the clippers. Why pay a man $10 to do something you could do yourself?
Jackson says a good barber will ask you questions like, “What do you like about your hair?” “What don’t you like?” “Do you want to change your style?”
Does the barber ask for feedback during the cut? During the haircut, a good barber will stop and ask you for feedback. They’ll let you look in a mirror and ask if your hair is still too long or if your hairline’s shape on the back of your neck is to your suiting. By asking for constant feedback during the haircut, a good barber can preempt any haircut disasters. Bad barbers, of course, won’t ask you for feedback until they swivel you around in the chair to look in the mirror. By then it’s too late. You’re destined to walk the streets looking like a doofus until your next haircut.
Conduct an interview. When you visit a new barber, he’s applying for a new position as the go-to man for all your grooming needs. As with hiring any new employee, make sure to conduct a solid interview in order to get a feel for whether he’s the right man for the job. Davis suggested that your questions focus on two areas: the barber’s experience and the barber’s personality.
To get an idea of the barber’s experience, ask him how long he’s been cutting hair and where he’s barbered. If he’s a relative noob, tread carefully. Unless you’re willing to be this man’s practice head, find a barber with more experience. Also, Davis suggested that you ask the barber how busy he is. Great barbers have lots of clients. If he tells you he’s on his feet from open until close and that you need an appointment to see him, you’ve probably found yourself a quality barber. If he says that he spends most of his time playing checkers with the local crazy person and that you can walk in anytime, well, there’s probably a reason for that.
After you get an idea about his experience and how in demand he is, ask some questions to get a feel for his personality. After all, you’ll possibly be spending 30 minutes with this person at least once a month, maybe more if you go in every two weeks. Part of the appeal of the barbershop tradition is the camaraderie men enjoy there. If your personality clashes with the barber’s, it can suck all the joy out of getting a haircut.
Davis also recommend taking mental notes on any clues about the barber’s personal life. Barbers and hair stylists are notorious for having a lot of drama in their lives. If they say stuff about switching shops because they didn’t get along with the owner or they’re having lots of family problems, this is a warning sign that you won’t be able to count on them. Barbers with lots of drama in their lives have a tendency to cancel or show up late for appointments. Eventually, they end up leaving and have to go to another shop. Even if the barber cuts hair like a genius, it might be more trouble than it’s worth to fit your schedule around a barber’s personal turmoil. Go with someone more reliable.
Start out slow. Of course once you’ve gone in and talked to a barber, even if you’re feeling like he’s not the right guy for the job, it’s hard just to get up and walk out. And even if you’re thinking that a new barber fits the bill, you won’t know for sure until he cuts your hair. The best way to figure out how skilled the barber is without risking a dopey hair cut is to simply ask that he clean up your hair line around your ear and your neck. It’s hard too screw up and even if he does, it’s not too noticeable. Just from the 10 to 15 minutes you’re with him and the quality of the trim, you should be able to get a good idea if the barber is a keeper or not.
Any other tips on picking a good barber? Share them with us in the comments.
Big thanks to Ben Davis and Von Jackson at The Gents Place for allowing me to interview them and for their great tips. If you’re in the Dallas area, be sure to stop by The Gent’s Place barbershop for a guaranteed good haircut.