story and photos by Josh Taylor Souza, special to The City Wire
On corner streets, in small towns, nestled deep in the fabric of the continental United States, lies man’s last unadulterated fortress.
It's a stoic place where news still comes in print and sporting events crackle through the speakers of rusty old clock radios. Artists come to work in smocks, armed to the hilt with straight razors, silver sheers and trusty old clippers that have been around since the Kennedy administration.
Customers three generations deep, lounge in armless chairs and gaze through decade-old periodicals, as they debate everything from local prep football to which heavyweight was truly the greatest.
In the center of this hub is the master barber. Truly a man donning many hats. The master barber, not to be confused with the hair stylist or the beautician, is a moniker that carries a deep and noble history.
As Cedric the Entertainer adequately stated in Ice Cube's classic cult-film that carries the namesake: "In my day, a barber was a counselor. He was a fashion expert. A style coach. Pimp. Just general all-around hustler."
In an age of cookie-cutter salons and chain shops that shuffle in clients like a revolving door, the classic barber shop is falling by the wayside. Only a dozen or so still remain in Northwest Arkansas.
Even in the South, where barbershops were once a staple of every small town, the competition now comes from all angles. A haircut can be had in every Wal-Mart in the area and there are currently twice as many Master Cut and Sports Clip locations as there are Dairy Queens.
"I think its just modernization like anything else in this world," said Charles Kirkpatrick of the Arkansas Barber Licensing Board. "It’s kind of like how you don't see as many people picking up a (news) paper today. But they always say a great barber doesn't die, he just gets clipped away."
Kirkpatrick is a master barber at The Cutting Edge in Arkadelphia. The cost of obtaining a master barber’s license is similar to cosmetology and depends of the school itself, but no-matter the school they both take 1,500 hours to complete. For full time students that translates to around 10 months. Tuition costs between $8,000 and $10,000, which included supplies.
The schools have some major differences. Most barber colleges are thought of as old, stodgy establishments, while cosmetology schools are generally newer – built in the last two decades.
According to beautyleap.com, there are more than 50 cosmetology schools in Arkansas and just 11 barber colleges certified by the state board. The reasoning can be attributed to a number of things, namely supply and demand.
Kirkpatrick is a throwback to the age of hot lather shaves and remembers a time when barbers were a staple in the fabric of any community.
"The barber pole is the oldest sign in town, aside from the cross on the church," said Kirkpatrick. "It’s also the oldest, honest profession. It’s a shame, some of the old techniques like strapping the blade or using hot towels or lather are rarely used by today's barbers."
"The way it’s going these days, you see a lot more salons and a lot less master barbers. ... There is a big difference in the two," he said. "For starters, the word barber is masculine at its root. It means beard. The big difference is that cosmetologists do as much on nails as they do hair, and they don't learn how to do a shave."
For example, most cosmetology students are women and in the golden age of barber shops, most women weren't working full time. Couple that with the fact that a large percentage of men are finding it less awkward to get their hair cut at a salon than they would have 30 years ago, it’s easy to see why the decline in classic shops is so prevalent.
"I get my hair cut a a few different places in (NWA) but it’s a lot easier to find a good salon that I trust than a barbershop," said Fayetteville resident John Pence, 24. "It’s not always the most comfortable thing getting my hair cut in a salon full of mostly women, so in that regard I wish I had a more male friendly place to go, but they are hard to find."
Sherri Blake owns the Village Barbershop in Bella Vista and says she would like to find a master barber to work in the shop several days a week.
“Barbering is a dying art. I have been looking for months to find someone who is truly a skilled master barber to help me in the shop. Oh, there are plenty of folks who can cut hair, but it’s not the same thing,” Blake said.
At 57, Blake is one of the younger barbers around. The mean age is 65. After selling cars for 15 years, Blake said she renewed her license and has been practicing in Bella Vista since 2002, purchasing the shop two years ago.
“I do have a retired gentlemen who helps me on Saturdays, but finding someone who wants to barber all the time is a challenge,” Blake said. “It’ a great job, by-in-large a cash business that averages $50,000 per year, it’s a shame more young men don’t pursue this field.”
Blake said the unisex schools today do not properly train barbers to use a straight razor or clip without the guard.
"I think most people would rather try for a cosmetology license because you have more choice with the type of business you want to run," said Lauren London, former owner of London Style in Van Buren. "Typically barbers only deal with hair and it’s fun to have the freedom to do nails as well, which you get with a cosmo degree."
Don and Jon's Shop in Springdale and the Village Barber Shop in Bella Vista are both cut from the classic mold, as well as Chad's in Fayetteville. Nothing fancy about these joints – just meat and potatoes and plenty of jabber.
Cut-Close Barber Shop in Fayetteville might be the most popular barber shop for young adults in the area. Currently carrying a five star rating by from Yelp, it features a variety of specials for students, kids and seniors throughout the week, though an average cut cost around $16.
This throwback barbershop is a favorite among University of Arkansas students and is frequented by several former and current UA athletes. It’s not unusual to see a player walk in on a conversation about how bad his team is playing. But it’s all in good fun.
"I like it because it’s laid back, urban and above anything else (Carlos) does a great job," said Cut Close customer Stephen Tucker, 26. "It’s the type of place where you can walk in and jump right into the conversation ... you can shoot the breeze with your boys and keep your fade looking good."
After a steady decline in barbers licenses from 2000-2008, the national board of barbers saw a 10% increase in 2009, coming off the recession. The numbers have been flat for the last few years – meaning at least for the time being our classic barber shops are off the chopping block.