The old-fashioned barbershop persists

Tammy Ortiz, an instructor at the American College of Hairstyling in Des Moines, Iowa, trains barbers. She can't train enough, judging from the calls to the school.

"A lot of smaller communities need barbers," she says. "Their barbers are retiring, and they want a new barber, not a beauty [school] student to take over."

And yet there are only 18 enrolled at the school, compared to about 80 students at a nearby beauty college.

This shortage of barbers in Iowa reflects the national trend, says Edwin Jeffers, a longtime barber, now retired, who serves on the Ohio and national barber boards and is the owner/curator of a barber museum in Columbus, Ohio.

"As a rule, we're not turning out as many barbers as we lose," he says, noting that the average barber is in his 60s.

In Mr. Jeffers's view, barbers have often been too protective of their own turf and haven't encouraged young people to take up clippers.

According to the latest statistics, the number of barbers and shops has dropped about 30 percent from the peak in the early 1960s - to roughly 195,000 barbers and 60,000 shops.

The decline coincided with the popularity of the Beatles and long hair, and a general reticence by old-timers to adapt. "They did not learn how to do long hair, so often they sat in their barber chairs and read the newspaper and worked their puzzles," Jeffers says.

The return of shorter hairstyles in the mid-1980s brought back business, which has remained.

"The short haircut is very much alive and well, so I don't see it ending anytime soon," says Alan Conragan, manager of the Massachusetts School of Barbering and Men's Hairstyling.

"Even if styles do go longer, I don't see any problems because barbers nowadays are getting training in all different kinds of haircuts - short, long, and women's cuts. They'll be ready for whatever happens."

This training, plus greater attention to image, is helping to revive barbershops, which sometimes have dropped the name and pole.

Franchises and barbershops charge less than fancy stylists, with cuts typically in the $8 to $15 range, making them attractive to the cost-conscious. These ower prices encourage more visits, and this, too, has been a factor in increased demand.

The need for good barbers is especially pronounced in barbershops in predominantly African-American neighborhoods, where more frequent patronage is common. Some African-Americans may go only a week to 10 days between visits, while whites may not return for a month or more, Jeffers says.

What makes barbering fun for a seasoned pro, says Mr. Conragan, is that "it's almost like hanging out with your friends all day."

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