For decades, barber shops were the anchors of Main Street and men’s routines. The red, white, and blue stripes of the barber pole immediately elicit iconic imagery of a slice of American culture.
For younger generations, barber shops lined with Naugahyde chairs and jars of Brylcreem are as foreign as chatting with a person face-to-face. But for college sophomore, Cole Stevenson, his barber shop memories are nearly identical to the three generations who came before him. Cole, like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all clients of Esquire Barber Shop, once located in downtown Pensacola.
For their family, Joe Brown, and his shop, Esquire, was more than routine. It was a thread woven between four generations of Stevenson men that was essential to the fabric of family memory and identity.
Esquire, owned by Tony Riha, was the quintessential old-school barber shop complete with entertaining banter between three barbers who could share with Cole stories of his grandfather back to high school. A favorite story was of the time during the 1960s when he got into a fistfight over a dare to get his head shaved. He and his buddy decided to shave their heads for high school graduation, but when the friend saw how awful Stevenson looked after the peel, he said, “I’m not doing it.” Stevenson jumped out of his chair and after his friend, scrapping it out until Tony broke it up.
Cole, whose first haircut there was at age 2, says of Esquire, “It’s probably the reason I have some of the tastes I have now,” referring to his appreciation for vintage clothing, signs, fonts, and design styles. Hundreds of ephemera covered the walls in the form of license plates, signs, posters, and more in a tiny building that has since been razed.
As market demands shifted and changed, there was a time in the nineties and early 2000s when the future of barber shops looked grim. As barbers retired, there was less interest in entering the profession or other skilled trades. Quick-cut salon franchises with modern conveniences popped up in sprawling developments all over the nation and Main Street USA faltered.
As a society, technology and routines continue to streamline our lives, in the name of “efficiency.” But what of human connection and a sense of belonging? Barber shops have always had a purpose beyond trimming and taming, serving as a conduit for connections and community ties.
Going beyond the transactional services of haircuts and beard trims, barber shops have long been a central hub for gathering and sharing information, as a town hall meeting, of sorts, that gave men and boys a place to connect with one another.
Barbers and hairstylists help us look and feel our very best but often stand in as counselors, ministers, curators of culture and history, and a patient sounding board. The American Barber Association says that “every year barbers and barbershops serve millions of Americans, hearing their struggles, hopes and dreams.”
I suppose putting your faith in the hands of a person holding a razor to your neck requires a level of confidence and vulnerability typically reserved for your mother or a surgeon. And beyond safety, they wield the power to shake your ego in one swipe of an unguarded clipper.
Perhaps it is for this reason that so many feel a sense of ease and security in the barber chair. If a barber can be trusted with a razor, perhaps they can be trusted with listening. It is certainly part of the trusted exchange in the loyal client base of Chuck Brown at East Hill Barbershop.
“Barber school was the last thing on my mind,” Brown says, remembering a time in his life almost ten years ago when he had serious choices to make, including sobriety and direction for his life. After sweating it out working in construction in the Florida heat, a light bulb turned on when he saw a sign for the Barber Academy. Nine months of training later, he was ready to work.
“My favorite part [of barbering] is the social aspect of it and helping people,” he says, acknowledging that his own story of achieving sobriety, a career change, and improving his life is an encouraging light for anyone who sits in his chair.
Chuck Brown isn’t the only one who’s made changes in the last ten years. East Hill Barber Shop owner, Jason Taylor, was on to something when he started the shop capturing the iconic feel of a bygone barber shop while implementing modern conveniences like online booking.
His most recent creation, The Green Room Barber Shop builds on the success of East Hill but with a different style that is a cross between a proper barber shop and a modern salon. For more on Jason and the Green Room, click here.
The something that Taylor was on to is the resurgence of barbering as a profession and as a cornerstone for communities, with steady growth of 5-7% since 2013. The market size, measured by revenue, of the Barber Shops industry was $5.1bn in 2022, according to IBISWorld market research firm.
Joe Brown died in 2020 at the age of 104, taking with him a lifetime of stories and a legacy of service that will likely be unmatched.
If you’re longing for a little nostalgia and a place to connect in your community, make an appointment at a barber shop. There’s a new generation of professionals doing a fine job of picking up the scissors that legends like Brown, Arthur Smith, and Curtis Morris laid down, and well…running with them.
And unless you’re on the losing end of a graduation dare gone wrong, you are almost always better off leaving a barber shop than when you went in.
For a Local Pulse video of Joe Brown and Esquire Barber Shop click here: https://fb.watch/mDZ5Q-fBJB/