Baltimore barbershops mount community comeback

Small shops offer more than just haircuts

June 23, 2014|By Michael Bodley, The Baltimore Sun

As the buzz of hair clippers mixed with Gene Simmons' howl through speakers inside Beatnik Barbershop, Ali Farzad awaited his last haircut inside the tiny Mount Vernon establishment.

Raising his voice to be heard over the din, Farzad said he's moving to Los Angeles for work. After three years going to Beatnik, he's nervous about finding a new barber, he said, gazing at paintings by local artists mounted on the shop's exposed brick walls.

"I'm very particular about my haircut, and I've had nightmarish experiences other places," Farzad said. "The experience here is more personal. It's the old-school feel, where it feels like home."

Beatnik is one of at least a half-dozen new barbershops that have cropped up around Baltimore in recent years. The locally owned establishments offer a hip take on the barbering experience, cultivating atmospheres that reflect their neighborhoods and contrast with the uniformity of such successful corporate chains as Great Clips, Hair Cuttery and SuperCuts.

There's Beatnik and Baltimore Barber Lounge in Mount Vernon, Old Bank Barbers in Hampden, Blue Spark Barbershop in Lauraville and Hairway to Steven, named for its owner and the album by punk band Butthole Surfers, in Towson. Downtown there's the Royal Razor Barbershop and perhaps the granddaddy of Baltimore's resurgent barber scene — Quinntessential Gentleman, which opened on South Calvert Street in 2005.

The first two years were "a struggle," acknowledged owner Craig Martin, as he fought the notion that hetting a haircut is just another chore.

"A haircut is a check off the list for a lot of people," Martin said. "This is not a checklist. This is a destination where you come to kick your feet up and relax."

He aims to slow his customer's hectic lives down by scheduling a minimum of 30 minutes for each haircut, which starts at $30.

The formula worked downtown where his shop caters to businessmen and the area's growing residential population. Quinntessential Gentleman (the unusual spelling honors Martin's mother's maiden name, "Quinn) now sprawls over four floors with a cedar-lined cigar lounge, a spa offering massages, manicures and even clothing sales.

As slick and polished as Quinntessential Gentleman is, the smaller Old Bank Barbers on West 36th Street, aka The Avenue, in Hampden has a self-described "hipster vibe." A ceiling mural mimics Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel, with Adam offering a fistful of money to a scissors-bearing, pompadoured God surrounded by coiffed minions.

The tattooed, bearded barbers working Old Bank's four chairs favor a mismatched uniform of T-shirts, cargo shorts and Vans sneakers. As at many of the new barbershops, there's sometimes a wait for a seat in one of the old-time chairs, but there's always cold beer in the fridge, music playing and conversation competing with the clippers.

Daniel Wells, 35, opened Old Bank in May 2013 after 10 years of cutting hair in other people's shops and salons. His shop, which charges $16 for a haircut, has seen revenue increase steadily every month since, he said.

"Guys are looking for this," said Wells, tapping his foot in rough rhythm to the music of Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. "They want to be able to come in here, listen to music, relax, maybe have a beer. They also want quality. People want more quality in everything you do now."

Most independent Baltimore barbershops said they get more than 80 percent of their business from men, leaving women's cuts and styling to salons.

Time is a factor, given the length of most women's hair, said Bill Puller, owner of Blue Spark Barbershop, who estimates he takes only 15 minutes on 90 percent of his customer's cuts.

Even then, wait times for one of Blue Spark's three barber chairs sometimes exceed two hours, which Puller conceded can lose him occasional customers. Wait times can be long because customers choose their barber, not just the shop, he said.

"It's all about the client," Puller said. "A bartender's not going to tell you what beer to drink or what burger to eat. You pick your barber. You develop that relationship. You find who you're comfortable with."

Puller knows almost all of his customers by name, and he remembers their hobbies as well as their haircuts.

One regular, Eric Mack, stops by the basement business almost daily at 6 p.m. to shoot the breeze with the shop's three barbers over an after-work Natty Boh. Puller said it's nothing out of the ordinary for a business that prides itself as much on community as it does on the precision of its $25 straight-razor shave. Haircuts are $18.

"Somebody working at a smaller local places likes this belongs to the community," added Blue Spark barber Steve Hebert. "The shop has its pulse on it. The drug dealers, the CEOs — you get them all. Every day's an adventure."

Community is a common theme for these shops.

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