Back to barbers: more men opt for shorter, basic cuts

After five years of having my hair styled, I really wasn't sure I was ready to return to a barber. I probably wouldn't have except that my hair stylist had moved, my hair was getting embarrassingly long, and my wallet was embarrassingly thin. So with a gulp I walked in and sat down, prepared for the worst.

Barber Robert Botelho's medium-long, super-curly head of hair was reassuring (he later revealed that it was a permanent), as was his understanding nod when I tried to explain that I wanted it "shorter, but not real short," and "over the ears, but yes, I guess part of the ears showing is okay."

Twenty minutes later, feeling decidedly trim but with enough hair left to look casually windblown after a winter walk, I found myself with enough money left for lunch.

My return to a barber was not unique. With shorter hair styles coming back, more men are doing the same. But many of the barbershops they're returning to have changed -- as have the barbers.

At the Massachusetts School of Barbering and Men's Hair Styling, for instance , half the 75 students now enrolled are women. Some are hairdressers who want to gain the cutting expertise that only the 700-plus hours of barber training can give. Others prefer to cut men's hair.

Joe Nicolosi, a barber in Haverhill, Mass., says three of his cutters are women.

"The men don't have a chance in this business any more unless they're like me. I started 21 years ago. We're all established now, and the women are working for us. But they're taking over the business. They're good cutters, good workers."

Rosemarie Presti is now in her fourth month of barber school. She says she has been "fooling around with hairdos since I was about 15," and since her husband is also a barber, it didn't seem odd for her to become one, too.

Joseph Carideo, who runs the Massachusetts School of Barbering, says students first get a week of intensive classroom training. They then "go right out on the floor," learning to cut hair under instructors' guidance, using as willing "guinea pigs" bargain hunters lured by the school's $2 haircuts and 50-cent shaves. He says that in about seven months the school can make someone "pretty capable of being a barber," at which point he or she can take the state licensing examination to be an apprentice. After apprenticing for 18 months one can take the exam to be a master barber.

Mr. Carideo notes that the number of barbers has risen in recent years (one national survey estimates the number to be over 221,000), following several years of sharp decline. With the advent of long hair in the 1960s, he says, many barbers who couldn't or wouldn't adapt simply closed up shop.

Mr. Botelho, a barber for 25 years, was able to change. He says he's gone from crewcuts, flattops, and squarebacks to Beatle and longer post-Beatle cuts, and now back to shorter styles. Even now, he still goes back to barber school for refresher courses on new styles.

As many barbers now do, he gives his customers the option of having their hair cut or styled. He says it breaks down to about 50-50. (According to Joe Carideo, there is no difference in the end result between hair cutting and hair styling. But styling, he says, also involves washing and blow drying.)

"You'd be surprised that a lot of the younger kids just want a regular haircut now," Mr. Botelho says. "They don't want to fuss or have to put anything in their hair. They want a freer look, which can be done with a regular haircut. It doesn't have to be styled."

He says college students (now his main clientele) tend to be very choosy about barbers.

"They'll go around the whole area and look, try different shops, and when they get one they like, stick to it."

He adds that although students usually get their hair cut just before a job interview, whether they need it or not, and although the trend is toward short hair, there hasn't been a dramatic increase in business. Part of the problem, he says, is that young people haven't been trained to get a haircut every two or three weeks as was an earlier generation.

Mr. Botelho has always loved barbering.

"I like to get a customer in the chair and look at him and know what he's going to look like." Then he adds, "I love dealing with people. That's why you'll find very few barbers ever retire. There are barbers in their 90s because they love dealing with people. If they do retire, they're semi-retired -- they'll come back and work on weekends."

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