The Lost Art of the Main Street Barber

1974—Burtonsville, Maryland.  If I close my eyes, it all comes rushing back…Johnny Cash playing from the cheap am radio resting on the shelf next to the Barbicide; the happy ring of the old-fashioned National cash register as it gladly accepted my Dad’s worn singles; the Dum Dum lollipop jar that marked my rite of passage at the end of the haircut when the barber was finished brushing the hair off my neck and unsnapping my smock.  Let me tell you, when you’re seven, nothing tasted better than the Cream Soda flavor.

I’ll never forget those piles of outdated Life and Reader’s Digest Magazines stacked next to the long row of uncomfortable metal waiting chairs; the reassuring hum of the electric clippers and the rhythmic metallic clicking of the scissors.  And of course, who could forget the intoxicating yet manly combination of spicy Bay Rum aftershave, Clubman talc, witch hazel and cigarette smoke that densely hung in the air like Grandpa’s cheap cologne.   Like a King getting ready to sit on his throne, there was something ceremonial about climbing into the vintage red barber chair as I slowly sank into the well-worn cushion.

While I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I can now look back on my childhood visits to the old-fashioned local barber with fondness.  What I’ve come to realize is that the barbershop was about much more than just getting a trim.   It was about bonding.  Like a welcoming beacon, the rotating barber pole beckoned men and boys from all walks of life to enter through its doors—the farmers, the tired old businessmen, the fathers with their kids.   And when they entered, they were immediately transformed into storytellers and brothers.

“Hey Joe, the Orioles look like they could go all the way this year if they can get through Oakland,” or “I’m telling you Mack, Pacino really shines in this sequel.”   Here, boys were made to feel like men; and men always knew each other’s first names.

36 years later as I listen to Lady Gaga blare through the shop-wide speaker system at a generic unisex chain salon that could just as easily be called “Hair Factory,” a young woman named Amber greets me.  On the wall is her recent cosmetology license along with various pictures of her dog.  Next to me, an older lady is getting a smelly chemical perm and a bunch of disruptive children are running around the shop like maniacs as the mother half ignores them.

Yes, times have changed and we now live in an age of instant gratification and often impersonal computer interaction—choosing to hide anonymously within the shadows of the Internet.   The art of “face-to-face, look ‘em squarely in the eye” conversation is disappearing at an alarming rate as we live out our lives in a rapid-fire virtual world.  And when we do choose to engage in the real world, we often do so with indifference, detachment and distrust.

While this animal may be endangered, by no means is it extinct.  As a matter of fact, if you visit Main Street in just about any small town in America, you’ll pleasantly find that these small-town gems still exist.  This past New Year’s Eve in a quaint Northwestern Pennsylvania town named Franklin, I had the opportunity to experience this authentic “slice of Americana” first hand when I visited Rodger’s Barber Shop on Main Street.  John Rodgers has been a respected institution in Franklin for the better part of 50 years—and has seen his share of history.  Ahh, the stories he’s heard and told.

I spent over an hour at the barbershop, watching a cast of unique local characters come and go.  We talked about our families, the holidays, interesting TV shows on the History Channel, and even John Wilkes Booth.  Yes, it turns out that JWB slept in the old hotel room above the barber parlor back in 1864 before he shot Lincoln.  For a time, Booth stayed in Franklin to start up a short-lived venture called Dramatic Oil—while also acting in the local theater.  John Rodgers went into the back room of the barbershop and came back with an old scrapbook, proudly showing us an antique Franklin Theater playbill with John Wilkes Booth name prominently displayed on the cover.  I learned a lot that afternoon.

I think it was serendipity that brought me to photograph at the old barbershop on the last day of the year.  I’ve lived many lives since my childhood barber days.  But for a brief moment, I was seven again, looking at my reflection in the mirror as I climbed back into the big barber’s chair for a trim.   As they say, “Photograph who you really are.”

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