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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

This month:

Barbershops & Woodshops

The Beard/Mask Interface

One Day Super Shop Cleaning

Barbershops & Woodshops

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

Smells can be outstanding memory triggers. It may have been the bottle of Aqua Velva the kid knocked off the shelf in the store the other day, or it could have just been my new awareness of facial hair as an ascending fashion trend, but I found myself lately thinking about the many enjoyable childhood moments spent in the barbershop.

My little hometown in Texas was not exactly Mayberry, but it was pretty close. And the barbershop was a man's place that let this young boy in from time to time to get his ears lowered, and more importantly, get a glimpse of adult camaraderie. I can still smell the shoe polish that old Josh lathered onto boots, the sandalwood-scented soap Walter used to give customers a straight-razor shave, the Barbicide soaked combs, the hours-old percolator-made coffee on the rickety table in the corner, and the sweet floral talcum powder that Billy dusted on the back of freshly shorn necks.

For a young boy not yet shaving and far from concerned about any fashion aspects of a haircut, it seemed odd that Gerald needed a haircut every week, but there he was, one of the barbershop "regulars." And even if I hadn't seen Fred coming through the clouds of talc, I knew he was there, his pipe smoke a calling card that announced his arrival early and lingered far longer than he. In those days, a haircut was not something to get done, but something to do. More accurately, it was something to do while communing in a collegial atmosphere.

A haircut now is merely a chore on a checklist. Barbers still cut hair with scissors and clippers, but they are called "stylists" now. Don't bother making small talk with them. Employee turnover is so frequent I have never seen the same person twice, even though I go to the same place for every haircut. Eight minutes is about average, even though I pay extra for the slower "scissor" cut rather than the electric clippers. That speedy haircut is typically after no wait...don't bother looking for a newspaper or magazine, there won't be anything mildly interesting or newer than six months old, and there won't be any time to read anyway. This is now a volume business, employees measured by their productivity, which means, mainly, how fast they can get your butt out of the chair and get to the next customer. There is no shoeshine guy, no talcum powder, and no coffee where I get my hair cut. The music is jumpy and loud and the smells are more chemical than collegial. These are merely fast-food facsimiles of the old barbershop.

Lest I start to sound like a bitter old-timer missing those halcyon days that are often better in memory than they were in reality, I don't mind that haircuts are just a checklist chore now. I don't mind the speed or the impersonality. Who needs a shoeshine service when all we wear are sneakers or loafers? An all-male hangout? That's so passé it is almost embarrassing. Sure, there were some good times and good talks in the old barbershop, but times change.


A place where people gather to commune, commiserate, or just chat is a social convention that transcends generations or business models. We are, after all, a species that best thrives upon community and communication. We need that gathering place. For me, that place is a woodworking store. Good conversation, pleasant smells, camaraderie, a recurring cast of characters. But since I live too far away to make it a regular hangout, I do the next best thing...I drop in frequently to my favorite "virtual" hangouts, the Highland Woodworking Facebook page and the Highland Woodworking Blog. Except for the smells and the hot pot of coffee (which I can generate on my own, thank you) Highland woodworking offers it all, just one (or two) clicks away.


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