Durango barbers’ newschool approach to an ancient trade

by Patty Templeton

Barbers go back to the bygone days – we’re talking the way back ancient times. “Barbering is considered one of the oldest professions. They found tomb paintings of people giving haircuts and relics of razors in Egypt [that were] 6,000 years old,” said Ben Martinez, barber and co-owner of ReyLynn’s Barber Lounge and Hair Studio. In Roman times, going to the barber for a shave and gossip was as daily as visiting the baths. By the Middle Ages, a barber’s duties included dentistry, amputations, haircuts, shaves, bloodletting, enemas, and sharing local news.

“Back in the day, it was called the tonsorial arts,” said Martinez. “A tonsor was the dentist, the surgeon, and the barber … (the title) carried so much weight and responsibility.”

Thankfully, by 1893, not only was the first barber school founded by A.B. Moler in Chicago, he also created the first textbook that limited barbering to haircutting, shaving, and facials. No more tooth extractions.

“The average man back in the 1890s, the technology wasn’t there for him to shave himself,” said Brendan Vlass of 6th Street Salon, “Taking care of a razor took time and knowhow. Guys didn’t have it so they’d pay to have a beard shaved. If they were a blue collar guy, once a week. If they were a white collar guy, every other day.” Then they’d get their haircut, to boot.

The decline of the barbershop in the U.S. Once razor technology in America was more accessible to the common man, the demand for a barber’s shave diminished, but the need for a haircut didn’t. By the 1950s, veterans of World War I and World War II were used to short, tight haircuts and began to prefer a handful of quick haircuts (the crewcut, butch, and flat top). This standardization allowed a high volume of customers to pass through a shop. The creation of the television also brought a swift source of news. While African American-owned barbershops continued the tradition of being a community center, shops frequented by whites started to pave the path for the commoditization of a swift experience, rather than a civic experience.

“Then, the Beatles came to the United States,” said Vlass. Before the British Invasion, “barbers could keep busy because men kept it tight. They’d be in the shop no matter what; like clockwork every two weeks. All of a sudden, men weren’t cutting their hair at all and barbers didn’t learn how to deal with long hair demands. So men went to the salons, if anywhere, for almost two generations.”

By the time barbers were ready to change with the times, unisex salons had taken over the market, places like Supercuts, where you could get a quick, 10-buck haircut on your way home from work. They created convenience, if not even a waft of ambiance.

The barbershops as a parley pointThe rise of online culture has created a craving for physical spaces that provide human interaction. In Greek and Roman times, barbershops were the third space: not home, not work – that somewhere else. Today, successful shops mimic the ancient idea of providing a brick and mortar congregating point.

“I was lucky enough to go to a school that had an older barber who had had clients he’d cut since they were kids,” said Pedro Vigil, manager of the barbershop at The Bookcase and Barber. “Now, they still come to him at 30. When I saw that, it became a goal of mine to work in a place where guys could bring their sons and that their dads had brought them, too. A place where you can go and BS and have a conversation between everyone in the shop.”

Vlass added, “If your barber’s been cutting your hair for 15 years, you have a lot to talk about. You can go deep. He knows you, your family. [He saw you] through college graduation, marriage, kids, death, cancer, business successes, huge moves, you name it … There is a real opportunity for a genuine relationship that involves all the meaningful things, like trust, love, reciprocity. Just because you’re paying for my time, that doesn’t mean my feelings are being rented.”

Martinez said, “You are a part-time barber and part-time therapist … It is kind of a brotherhood that you create with your clients. We want guys to come in even if they’re not getting their hair cut. Even if they want to come in and sit and have a drink and chat … In a small town like Durango, community is everything.”

The old-time barber experienceWhat makes a stop at the barber’s special is not only the conversation but the haircut and shave. The resurgence of full-service barbers boils down to the experience. A barber can provide a luxuriant, practical, social service that is above and beyond what you would get in a typical haircuttery, for not much more in cost.

Martinez said, “Men come in and we give ’em a beer and just let ’em relax. Straight razor shaves are amazing. Bring out a straight razor and guys are like, ‘Whoa, you do that?’ and then I put some guys to sleep. It can be relaxing.”

That traditional straight razor shave is the key to your haircut as experience rather than practicality. “One thing I really love about the shave is that very few things have such an objective perfection to them,” said Vlass. It isn’t unusual for a shave to take 45 minutes in Vlass’ 6th Street Salon chair. There is pre-lather, hot lather, and your face being wrapped in a hot towel while he strops his blade. The process of lathering and toweling can happen three or four times. Then, there’s 14 steps of shaving, and if you want a really close shave, he’ll go back against the grain after another lathering and hot toweling. No wonder folks fall asleep in the chair, with all that unwinding warmth.

Vigil, who helped create the barbershop side of The Bookcase and the Barber, said, “We pride ourselves on using that old-time craft. Hot lather, steam towels, a traditional straight razor, how we drape our clients, all the way to going more modern and washing someone after the cut … We try to do the best service we can from beginning to end, so when you leave, you feel fresh.”

Newschool barbers emphasize that communication with the client is a part of the perfect haircut, and hopefully, your haircut looks like art walkin’ out the door. “When people see my work,” said Vigil, “I want them to be amazed, whether it is a hair design or a big pompadour with a clean fade. I want guys that look for that to notice it.” Some barbers think of themselves as artists, others don’t, but all barbers want their clients to feel better on the way out of the shop than they felt on the way in.

Change your hair, change your lifeEveryone’s had a haircut so crap that they’ve punched something or cried or, in the very least, ranted to a pal. The other side of that is getting a haircut so fantastic it shifts your center. Martinez said, “People can break down emotionally because they come in sick of their hairstyle and they didn’t know that their hair could do this or that. You get to make people feel beautiful and good about themselves and that is something really special.”

Your local barber is used to, on some level, changing your life. Sometimes it’s a little change, like helping someone get a job by giving them more confidence with a new haircut. Or maybe it’s as simple as knowing how to create hard lines that make a soft jaw look more angular. Sometimes it’s a big change, Vlass said: “I had a guy who said I got his wife to say ‘yes’ when he proposed. He believes I gave him what he needed to go on and ask.”

So is this why Vlass does what he does?

“They’re the icing on the cake.”


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