I should probably start by saying that if your ideal salon visit includes textured layers, ombré coloring, organic tea or a head massage—then barbershops are not for you.
I don’t dislike hair salons. An hour in a spa-like atmosphere, catching up on glossy mags, and leaving with a new style? Yes, please.
What I don’t love is paying $50+ for a haircut every two months.
I’ve had a pixie cut for years, and it grows out from cute to a mullet in just a few weeks. When it starts to get bushy, it gets REALLY bushy: my hair fans out around my ears like an excited Pomeranian’s, and pushes out at the back like a duck bill. Constant trims might seem reasonable to some, but not me. I’d rather direct that money toward more important things -- like sushi, or nail polish.
This is how my wallet and I fell in love with barbershop cuts.
My route to cheap-haircut heaven wasn’t pretty. In high school, I had a series of pudding-bowl chops, courtesy of the local salon school. During my first years of college these combined with their awkward grow-outs, because I didn’t want to pay for the expensive salons in my college town.
Things got marginally better when I started going to a nearby budget salon. This shop specialized in a quick-and-easy pixie with a long hairline, straight across in the back; think Emma Watson in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, minus her excellent bone structure and team of professional stylists. An embarrassing percentage of my small college had the exact same haircut.
I’ll never understand it, but there’s something about this cut that cheapo salons love. It reminds me of something you’d see on a 90s mom, and it grows out into a mullet extra-quickly. I’ve run into variations of the same cut at every low-price salon I’ve been to, even after specifically asking for my hairline to be tight in the back.
Eventually, I graduated to real salon haircuts -- and their real salon price tags. They certainly looked better than my old budget cuts, but after a few years I was sick of paying for them again.
One weekend, when my hair was looking particularly shabby, I was running errands downtown when I passed by a barbershop. They were packed. On a whim I went in, and was wrapped in the shop’s dusty, faintly stale air; no perfumed shampoos here. I sat down between a college bro and an old man with a cane and waited for my turn, wondering if this chop would mark another notch on my bad-haircuts bedpost.
But it wasn’t. To my surprise I had a woman hairdresser, and she understood what I wanted almost immediately; in her language, “tight in the back” didn’t mean “just like mom’s.” The haircut was pretty decent: short all over, tapered at the neck, and no mullet to be found. Even with the wait, I was still in-and-out in half an hour. Best of all, it was dirt cheap -- just $13.
Since then, I’ve usually mingled trips to a real salon with a trim or two at the barber’s; instead of going to the salon every two months, I can now stretch it out to three or four. I feel a little like I’m cheating on my regular stylist, but thankfully she’s never mentioned it.
I’m lucky that my short haircut fares well at the barber, but who knows – you might be lucky too. If you’re tempted to give the barbershop a try, here’s some tips to help you out:
Do your research first. Not all barbershops cut women’s hair. I suppose you could make a feminist stand for women’s equality and insist that they take your business, but personally…I just don’t trust an angry barber to give me a good haircut. I’d rather save the protests for more important causes, and walk my money to the women-friendly barber down the street.
Look for a place with a line. Forget Yelp reviews: I’ve had my hair cut at a few barbershops now, and the ones with waiting customers have those lines for a reason.
Come with clean hair. Unlike salons, barbershops don’t typically shampoo your hair before cutting it, so coming in with a ton of product in your hair is a surefire was to piss off your hairdresser. I learned this one the hard way. I’m in a long-term love affair with a paste that holds down my puffball hair without making it crunchy, but one time I didn’t think to wash it out before popping over to the barbershop. The ripping from the hairdresser’s comb when she tried to yank it through my hair means I’ll never forget again.
Bring cash. Maybe your barbershop will accept cards, but chances are a little hole-in-the-wall place that’s been giving buzzes since the ’70s won’t.
Watch your spot in line. At the barbershops I’ve been to, there’s usually a few guys in line, and a handful of women waiting while their son or boyfriend gets his hair cut. If you don’t want your turn taken by some guy who thinks you’re waiting too, you’ll have to be ready to jump up when the hairdresser calls for the next customer.
Be specific about what you want...
But don’t be too picky. I try to describe what I want and maybe bring a picture so the hairdresser has a rough idea, but don’t expect to come out looking ready for the red carpet.
Tip well. I’ve never broken out a stopwatch, but I suspect the hairdresser spends a little more time on my hair than she would on her average haircut. I try to tip a bit extra to make up for it.
Have you been to a barber? Got some mullet tales of woe? You know you want to talk about it.