Men of a certain age, regardless of race, creed, color, sexual preference or socio-economic status, share a certain, specific and almost wistful memory. Once a week during their youth, their mother gave them a couple of bucks and they went to the barbershop for a haircut.
Much has been made of this by media types, cultural experts, and people who look important when they appear on TV. They throw around phrases such as American icon, window to another era, and similar-sounding social babble. Some have even heralded the return of the barbershop, tied to the current fascination with retro (whatever that is) that shows up in all the New York magazines.
All of which misses the point about barbershops.
Men who remember going to the barbershop remember it because they didn’t want to go. Hated going. It was boring. It was scratchy. It took forever – and it took time away from doing something important, be it riding bikes or playing ball or beating up your brother.
“I can’t tell you how many times I went to the barbershop with my brother and my dad,” says Alan Clarke, a longtime neighborhood resident. “As a kid, I remember Dad would never let me get a flat top – too expensive – and while he never said it, he probably feared it would turn me into a hoodlum. And the only advantage to the cut was the Double Bubble gum on the way out.”
That probably explains why barbershops are still with us, despite constant predictions of their imminent demise since the late 1960s, when men started to let their hair grow and thousands of barbershops did close. But something seems to be happening in and around Preston Hollow these days, because a glance at the Yellow Pages shows that there are more barbershops here in our neighborhood than people think.
Says Bill Singleton, who owns the Preston Royal Barbershop: “There must be dozens of them. I think they’re making a comeback.”
And with good reason. Barbershops are functional. They are efficient. They are practical. If someone has to do something they don’t want to do – and most men dislike getting a haircut today as much as they did when they were 7 – why not get it over and done with as quickly as possible?
“What happens is that people go other places to get a haircut, and they’re not getting what they want,” Singleton says. “Those places don’t know how to cut a barbershop haircut. People come here, they get what they want, no second-guessing.”
His point is well taken. Look around Preston Hollow, and what’s left from the old days, save for Dougherty’s Pharmacy? The movie theater is gone. The bowling alley is gone. That leaves the Preston Forest and Preston Royal barbershops, the latter of which long-time owner James Dollar sold to Singleton less than a year ago. His barbershop has been in the shopping center for almost 60 years, which speaks volumes about the demand for a barbershop haircut.
It also speaks of neighborhood, which is something the pop culture gurus either overlook or don’t understand. When they do mention it, they talk about bonding and being connected, which might sound good on Oprah but talks around the point. On some level, visiting the Preston Royal or the Preston Forest every couple of weeks might be the stuff of a doctoral dissertation, but it overlooks something much more basic. It’s possible to have a neighborhood without a barbershop, but if you do have a barbershop, there’s no doubt that you’re in a neighborhood.
It’s no coincidence that we publish magazines in three Dallas neighborhoods, and that each neighborhood includes barbershops of almost-legendary status. On the other hand, there will almost certainly never be a barbershop in some place such as the West Village, the developer-generated urban something or other at Lemmon and Central, which means that no matter how hip and trendy it becomes, it will almost certainly never become a neighborhood.
In fact, it’s places such as the West Village that pose the newest threat to the continued existence of the barbershop. Real estate prices have increased in urban neighborhoods significantly in the past decade, which has put the squeeze on barbershops. Singleton says he is fortunate that his landlord, Henry S. Miller, likes barbershops, and found a way to keep a barbershop in an increasingly expensive and upscale strip center – on the second floor, but still there.
It’s a good gesture and a good thing for our neighborhood. It’s spooky, in a way, to walk past Preston Royal or Preston Forest on a Saturday morning or after school during the week, and to see kids waiting to get their hair cut, often with parent in tow, as if it was 1972 and not 2002.
One of the funny things about memory is how it comes in waves. One minute, you’re in the present, and the next you’re remembering long-forgotten things that happened 30 years ago. Barbershops have that kind of effect on anyone who ever sat in one, clutching a couple of dollar bills and bouncing impatiently while waiting for the barber to motion to them.
I haven’t been to Bart’s Barbershop in the town I grew up in for more than 25 years, and the shop has been gone for more than a decade, but I remember where it was, and I remember what the shop looked like and what Bart looked like and what we used to talk about. Will anyone be able to say that about places such as the West Village in 25 years?
It’s something to ponder the next time I’m waiting for the barber to call my name.
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