Is Michael Portman crazy? Two years ago, he had a solid, well-paying job and a comfortable pad in Los Angeles that he shared with his lovely new wife, Erin. Just 29, he was living the good life. And bored silly. He was sick of writing speeches for executives at the Walt Disney Company, sick of working for an enormous conglomerate, and really sick of Los Angeles. So he quit. He and the wife, a pair of music-lovers, moved to the alternative-rock capital of America: Austin, Texas. Eager to indulge his entrepreneurial spirit and inspired by his new city's anti-chain store ethos, Michael immediately began ginning up business ideas. One day, just three months after the Portmans arrived in Austin, Michael turned to Erin and said something that perhaps no other 29-year-old living in a big city has said aloud in decades: "Let's open a barbershop."
For decades, barbershops were a safe, dependable and consistently profitable business. "You didn't have to worry about the plant closing, you didn't have to worry about a bad crop," says Charles Kirkpatrick, executive officer of the National Association of Barber Boards of America (NABBA) and also a practicing barber in Little Rock, Ark., since 1958. "The barber was, and still is, the most independent business in town." It was also a part of the American cultural fabric, serving as the unofficial Elks club, where men could gather while they waited for a shave and a cut and discuss the all-important issues of the day, such as who should be playing third base for the Cubs and whether a Mustang or a Corvette was the sweeter ride. In 1960, there 350,000 licensed barbers in the U.S., according the NABBA. Then the Beatles came along and ruined everything.
When John, Paul, George and Ringo stormed America in the 1960s, they didn't just change the way we experience popular culture. They changed the way we do our hair. All of a sudden, young men no longer wanted the traditional buzz cut or the neat-and-tidy trim around the ears. They wanted long hair, bushy hair, floppy hair. Rock n' roll hair. "An old barber friend of mine once told me a story about seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan way back when," says Gordon Logan, the founder and CEO of Sports Clips, a 13-year-old nationwide chain of barbershops catering to sports fans. "The moment he saw them, he said to himself, 'Oh no, there goes the industry'." As the counter culture rose, men's hair got wilder and traditional barbers-most of whom were conservative, old-fashioned types-"just didn't adapt very well," says Logan. Pretty soon, lots of men were going to the same salons as their wives and girlfriends, paying twice as much for a stylist to cut their hair the way David Bowie wore it. By 1990, the number of barbers nationwide had plummeted to 185,000. The average age of a barber was 59. And there weren't any reinforcements on the way.
So Portman is crazy, right? How else do you explain trying to resurrect a fossil like the American barbershop in one of the country's edgiest towns? Here's why: Against all odds, the trend is starting to reverse itself. The explanations vary about why-salon cuts are getting too expensive, men are itching to be around more men, the backlash against that risible notion of "metrosexuality" is arriving right on schedule-but the statistics are clear. The number of barbers is back up to a healthy 220,000, and it's growing. Perhaps the biggest reason for the rebound, though, is that the classic barbershop is finally evolving to meet the times.
Next week, Portman and his business partner Jayson Rapaport will open Birds Barbershop, the first "rock n' roll" haircutter within Austin's city limits. Local bands will periodically perform, loud music will constantly blare, Wi-fi will course through the building, and the design of the shop-masterminded by local interior design guru Joel Mozersky, who did the "Real World: Austin" house on MTV-will resemble the town's dozens of nightclubs. One inside wall will be covered by a 40-foot-tall mural painted by a pair of local artists. They'll even have a disco ball dangling from the ceiling. "I'm a music geek who can't play a single instrument, and I'm insanely jealous of anyone who can. This shop is my band," says Portman. But why hair? "Because rock n' roll and hair seem to be like first cousins. The Mohawk. Blondie."
Rock n' roll barbershops are a growing phenomenon. The notion has worked like gangbusters in other cities that lack anything close to the music tradition-and devotion to independent local businesses-that resides in Austin. The barbershop is being remade in other ways, too. In less urban regions, entrepreneurs have been enticing men back into the barber's chair by appealing to their love of sports, opening shops stacked with flat screen TVs. Logan opened his first Sports Clips shop in 1993. "Back then, no one was paying attention to men," he says.
"Everyone thought we were kinda nuts." Today, Sports Clips, whose cuts start at $15, is up to 331 stores nationwide, with plans to open another 150 in the next year. "We want guys to feel like Norm walking into ‘Cheers,’" Logan says. "And we're a no-appointment establishment, because we know guys don't wanna make appointments. They just wanna walk it and get it done on the way back from the Home Depot."
This attention to "what guys want" is at the heart of the barbershop revival. "We came into this as consumers," says Portman. "I'm a guy. I don't need the scented candles." What guys do need, or at least what they want, is the banter, the teasing and the male camaraderie that was an integral part of the local barbershop experience years ago but gradually slipped away. Of course, it never disappeared from the African-American community, where barbershops have earned such a hallowed place in the culture that entire movie franchises and reality TV shows have been built around them. "Cutting Edge," a recent HBO documentary about a busy Harlem barbershop, opens with a description of old school neighborhood shops calling them: "the nexus of all black male life: young, old and everything in between. Everyone else is just now catching up. "I started noticing it about two years ago," says Ron Brown, owner of the Austin-based Roffler School of Hair Design. "Guys are just tired of going to salons-and I'm sure women are probably glad they're gone. Guys want to go back to where the men are."
For this particular journalist, it's been more than 20 years since my last trip to a barbershop, and I have fond, if distant, memories of spending those visits talking sports, in particular my beloved New York Mets. (My barber back then, Pete, was also a fan.) These days, I'm a borderline "metrosexual," and in the eight years since I moved back to New York after college, my hair has been handled only by stylish gay men for about $40 a cut. Maybe it was time to go back to the barbershop and see what I've been missing? On the way home from the office one evening, I took a detour to the Park Slope Barber Shop in Brooklyn. The place, a classic joint on 7th Avenue, is run by the Fiumefreddo brothers-three of them-and it has been in the family since 1948. Angelo, who cut my hair, has been there 25 years himself. "It's not so painful if you don't think about the numbers," he said as I settled into his chair. The shop is so old-school that the phone number listed on the business cards has only seven digits-no area code. Talk about a neighborhood establishment.
I started to wince as the hair came off in bigger clumps than I'm accustomed to. But gradually, I settled down and took in the surroundings: Pictures of New York Yankee greats on every wall. A giant, vintage cash register in the back, still operational. Original leather barber chairs that came with the shop when it opened nearly a century ago. Eric Clapton and Eddie Money pouring in through crummy speakers, and the Fiumefreddo boys singing along to every song. Business, they agreed, has been good lately-better than a decade ago, though they're loath to guess why. Pretty soon, talk turned to baseball and I confessed my allegiance to the Mets. "Oh no," Angelo said with a smile. "Now I'm gonna have to mess up your hair." He let me off easy, though, and by the time I got up out of his chair, I was starting to rethink my allegiance to the pricier hair-stylists I've favored for so long. Then he said two words that sealed the deal: "Fifteen dollars." Fifteen ? Why did I ever stop going?