A Shave at the Barbershop

Barber’s shop with Monkeys and Cats (oil on copper), Teniers, Abraham (1629–70) / Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria / Bridgeman Images

Barbershops are full of symbols. The red and blue on the striped cylinders that adorn their exteriors are commonly thought to symbolize blood that often accompanies the use of straight razors. And the shops themselves are symbols of earlier, more traditional, (and less politically correct) times. It isn’t hard to find this trope played out on television shows often. Barbershops are thought of as places where men can still “be men” and say what they want without fear of being challenged. It is a myopic and unevolved idea, for sure. But one idea that is not unevolved is that you can get one of the best, if not the best, shaves. I set out to see if this was true.

I set an appointment after class at 3:20. I woke up late that day desperately needing a shower, but was stressed for time as I had to go to class. Since it was a short day, it was perfect timing to clean my face and neck of the excess fur that accompanies a period of neglectful grooming that is so common among college students.

I walked into Carsey’s Barbershop in uptown Athens about ten minutes early, but the wait went fast and I soon found myself in a standard, albeit aged, barbershop chair in the middle of a floor that might as well have been a sea of shaved and clipped hair.

“What do you want done with this hair?” Said Brian, my barber.

“Oh, not here for a haircut actually. Just getting a shave on the face and neck,” I answer, a little surprised.

No worry, though, as Brian turns on a huge electric trimmer and begins clearing my face of the insulating fuzz that covers my face.

Haircuts can be fearful experiences. Children naturally have anxieties about sharp objects cutting away parts of them from their heads. Obviously we grow out of this quickly when we realize that it often doesn’t hurt and there usually isn’t a danger of a haircutter cutting something other than hair. But shaves are different. Especially if you have sensitive skin, as I do. These are things I thought about as the slate of classic rock radio played faintly over the shop stereo and I watch my beard get removed in the mirror.

As far as receiving a shave goes, it might be a more active experience than getting a haircut. There is definitely much less room for error (on the stylist’s part), depending on how much you prize an unlacerated face over an unembarrassing hairstyle. The patron has more control during a shave than a haircut, too. This might be what makes it so dangerous. Brian asks and confirms where I want my sideburns to end and marks it. He then goes under my chin and around my neck. Brian nicks me with that huge trimmer. Nothing I haven’t experienced before, but an ominous start, to say the least.

“Looks like you’ve got that sensitive skin, huh?” Says Brian.

“Yep, it happens,” I say back calmly.

It’s not like I haven’t done that to myself before (I’d be lying if I said it was a rare occurrence). But I’d also be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking that it was a disappointment. After all, I wanted to try a barbershop shave to see how much better it could be than normal.

But things moved quickly from there so I couldn’t dwell on the disappointment much.

My wound was cleaned easily and provided no obstacle.

Next came a familiar part as I was leaned backward and a steaming towel was wrapped around my face. I lay on the chair for a good couple of minutes, listening to the mild and pleasant oldies while staring up at the ceiling through the limited hole in the towel wrap left to expose my nose. Obviously this a peaceful experience. Arguably what follows is even more so.

As Brian removes the towel, he explains that the steam makes it so the remaining hairs on my face are softer and easier to cut. The shaving cream he is about to apply does this even more.

Brian uses a brush because he is a professional and he knows how to do it this way.

After a shave, even a trim, your face is always more sensitive. A splash of water offers a tingling that is probably unique. So, when a brush of extremely fine hairs is used to correctly apply this stuff and it is for that purpose, it’s pretty soothing.

Once it completely covers the part of my face where hair grows, Brian uses a disposable plastic razor. I can’t help but feel a little cheated, expecting the straight razor sooner than it would come, but this went fast. And soon a second layer of shaving cream was applied.

It does not get any less relaxing. If there is anything to be taken away from this, it is that applying shaving cream with a traditional brush is extremely underrated and should not be taken for granted.

In preparation for the straight razor, only one side of my face is covered at a time. Brian mostly uses it to shape the borders of my sideburns and smooth out spots that are still rough with stubble.

“This isn’t the first time I’ve done this,” he says. “We’d be in a lot of trouble if this was the first time I’ve done this.”

For the most part, he’s effective; this was definitely the smoothest and least painful shave I’ve ever gotten.

As Brian finishes up, someone, either another barber or patron, brings up Johnny Carson and how he dealt with politics and politicians.

“You won’t see that kind of humor on late night anymore,” says one of the barbers in response.

“Yeah, now the best we have is Jimmy Fallon!” I answer back.

“Well, he’s your generation’s problem now,” Brian returns with a laugh.

There’s the natural, opinionated talk that had been missing from the experience thus far. Not exactly raw stuff, but certainly uncensored and meaningful.

Brian, done with the banter and my facial shave, takes a look at me and says, “I’ve got some bad news. It seems that neither of us is bleeding.”

“I gotta say, I’m disappointed.”

We share an accomplished laugh and with that, my chair is tilted back upright and my neck is shaved with that huge pair of trimmers.

That is that. I no longer look like a slob and my face feels great.

For the most part, the symbolism associated with barbershops is pretty accurate. It may not be in the extreme, but it is certainly based in fact and it is also no lie when the professionalism of barbershops is held in high regard. All in all, it cost just 15 bucks for, as I said, the smoothest and least painful shave I’ve ever had and that was only half of it, in terms of the full barbershop experience.