Barbershops trimming use of straight-edge razors Fear of lawsuits ending time-honored tradition

March 11, 1997|By Albany Times Union

ALBANY, N.Y. - It's too close a shave for most barbers these days, made cautious by fear of lawsuits and not willing to go against the grain of economic trends and changing fashion.

And so, the practice of removing men's stubble with a straight-edge razor - a service performed by barbers since biblical times - has dwindled to an estimated handful of practitioners in the Albany area, as in much of the nation.

"I did it for many, many years but quit two years ago," said Jim Hafensteiner, 50, an area barber.

"I stopped because I didn't want to go to litigation just because someone got a nick or cut and claimed he got some kind of infectious disease," Hafensteiner said.

Allen Jones, of Allen's Hairstyling, in Guilderland, N.Y., said he gave his last shaves in the early 1980s. Most barbers, he explained, can produce a styled haircut at a higher price and more quickly than the time-consuming old-fashioned shave.

Ed Jeffers said precise numbers are unavailable, but he added that there is no question the practice has fallen off sharply both here and nationwide.

Jeffers is curator and owner of the Barber Museum in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio, and head of the National Association of Barber Boards, the state-level agencies that license and examine barber shops.

"In 1988," he said, "I sent a letter to all the licensing boards in the United States, and I recommended they discontinue the use of the straight razor," citing concerns about spread of hepatitis and AIDS.

If the customer wanted a shave, and the barber was comfortable with the request, Jeffers recommended a straight-edge razor with a changeable blade or soaking a reusable blade in isopropyl alcohol at least eight minutes.

Proficiency in straight-razor shaving is still required by New York and most states to qualify for a master barber's license.

The Atlas Barber School in Manhattan, the oldest tonsorial school in the state, teaches shaving in a 16-hour course.

The skill, according to Terry Mazzelli, operations manager of the school, is in properly stretching the skin, lathering correctly, and cutting the beard along its changing grain.

"For a lot of barbers, the last time they shave someone is the day they take their boards," said Robert Marvy, owner of the William Marvy Co. of St. Paul, Minn., perhaps the last company in North America to produce "authentic" barber poles.

Marvy, steeped in the trade's tradition, cited consumer access to reliable and sharper home safety razors as a factor.

Max Spezzaferro, owner of the Classico Barber Shop in Halfmoon, N.Y., is one of the few in the Albany area who still wields the traditional blade. He said there is no substitute for a good barbershop shave.

The Italian-born Spezzaferro, 59, the seventh generation in his family in the business, said proudly, "If you can shave a potato without cutting the skin, then you are a good one."

And it was with echoes of tradition going back through the centuries that he lovingly described the process: "We put down the chair, they go to sleep, that's how much they trust us," he said. "We put the hot towels on the face - three to four hot towels. Then later, shave, use a disappearing cream, then a couple of more hot towels, then finally," he said, good naturedly, "we frighten them with a little ice-cold towel which wakes them up. When through, they feel like a million dollars."

About 30 years ago, he said, he gave three or four shaves a day, with clients coming in every morning. Today, he said, most people do not seem to have the time. But he does get about four or five requests a month and said he hopes the tradition does not die.

Did he ever have a major accident with the blade? "Yeah," Spezzaferro said. "Once, I nicked my ex-partner's neck." After a dramatic pause and with laughter he added: "I should have cut it."

Pub Date: 3/11/97

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