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Where Have All the Barbers Gone?
Wednesday, November 3, 2010 • Posted November 2, 2010

I remember the ballyhoo when photos of Elvis Presley were released showing him at a military base getting his head scalped by a U.S. Army barber. The girls cried and swooned, the guys were glad to see their rival taken down a notch. For me, the sad thing is that today such “scalping” is a daily occurrence in so-called barber shops all across Texas.

Some of the fondest memories of my childhood include going to the barber shop with my dad. I would climb up into that awesome barber chair where the white-clad barber had placed a board across the armrests to raise me up a little to get me in range of his clippers. I would bask in the warmth of the place. It was more than just a place to get a haircut—it was a place to be immersed in manly things, things like stories of deer hunting, exaggerations about the size of a fish caught, friendly joshing about political differences, and arguments about whose favorite basketball team would come out on top.

But, alas, the friendly, neighborhood barber shop with its rotating barber pole and lively conversation is almost a thing of the past. Today, the men’s hair-cutting industry is dominated by cosmetologists and beauticians who not only can’t taper a man’s hair but who have presided over the demise of that wonderful male bastion of my youth. Let’s face it; the unisex or “family” hair salon with its sterile, impersonal battery of puny little naugahide chairs manned by ladies wielding tiny little scissors and clippers armed with clip-on trim-depth devices just ain’t cuttin’ it.

There are, however, a few holdouts, albeit fewer and fewer as time goes by. One such place is the shop of the “Master Barber” and stylist, Ray Gonzalez, at the intersection of Highway 281 and FM 1863 in Bulverde. The walls of his shop are, or were, decorated with over 2,000 fishing lures. The last time I visited with him, he was taking them down. “I’ve been cutting hair since 1968,” he told me. “I am 72 years old and afflicted with age and veteran-related ailments. My wife and I have decided to travel more and to enjoy what is left of life. We’re looking forward to a trip to Hawaii. 2,000 fishing lures represent quite an investment and would be a tempting target for thieves while we’re away. I decided it was best to take them down.”

He said that Governor Perry signed a bill that placed cosmetologists and barbers under the same umbrella. Because it takes more training and therefore more time and money to become a barber than to become a beautician, there are fewer and fewer trained barbers.

“In the 1970s “unisex” came in,” said Ray. “Men liked longer hair and afros. The beauticians could do them. I refused. I would send them across the street to the beauty parlor—I was a barber! Beauticians aren’t allowed to shave your neck; a barber can.” He went on to say that some states require two years as an apprentice to a master barber before getting a license. “You dance with a haircut,” he said. It’s like cooking. You’ve got to love it to do it right. They don’t cut hair now, they scalp you.”

Ray proudly served nine years in the Marine Corps. In Vietnam he was exposed to Agent Orange and, as a result, is now on disability. He works in his shop four days per week from 9 to 12. “I’m not looking for new customers,” he said, “but I’ll take anyone who walks in.” He showed me a photo album of his favorite customers. Some are distinguished military retirees. Others are just common folks whom he has come to love and admire. Nearly all are seniors. “I don’t need the money,” he said. “I cut hair because I love it.”

Then there’s the barber shop of Gary Rodgers in Spring Branch. Now, this is a man’s kind of barber shop! The man cutting hair and his customers are not ordinary men and the wall displays are not family snapshots. Next to the signed pictures of Marilyn Monroe and Mae West, there are autographed photos of Buz Aldrin, first man on the moon; a patch and autographed photo of the chief engineer on the Challenger Space Shuttle; there is an autographed photo of Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay. He was the guy who dropped “the bomb” on Hiroshima. He gave Gary a video taken from the cockpit that fateful day—and signed it.

“He saved my life,” said ‘Old Bill’ Ryman of Blanco, who happened to be sitting in the barber chair when I came in. “I made one of the first jumps in the Philippines during the War. I would have been among the first to invade the Japanese homeland. I’m alive today because they dropped the bomb that ended the war.”

“I have people come from all over,” said Mr. Rodgers. “I can cut a flat top. I’ve been here 15 years. I love it here. God’s blessed me. I’ve got customers I can go fishing with.”

One of his customers said (as he lined up a putt on the miniature golf green), “Where else can you get a cold beer out of the ice box, watch an old black and white movie and get a haircut all at the same time and all at the same price?” “There’s a place nearby that charges $27 for a man’s haircut and $18 per child,” said Mr. Rodgers. “I charge $10.”

“You couldn’t be an idiot and get a barber license when I got mine. We studied from a text as big as a bible. They asked questions on that test about the muscles controlling the eyebrows and we had to distinguish between staph and strep.” He went on to say that “most are cosmetology schools in Texas now. I have had instructors send their students to me to show them how to taper a man’s hair. Nowadays they ask a man if he wants a “one, two or three” and depending on his answer they slap on an attachment and run the clippers over his head.”

I try to get to church early so I can get one of those good seats on the back row. From that vantage point I can take notice of nearly all the men’s haircuts in the congregation. Sure enough, most look like they’re right out of the military operations manual—not unlike that given to Elvis Presley when he was drafted. Oh, the lengths vary a little depending on whether they wanted a “one, two or a three,” but they are essentially all the same.

Alas, where have all the barbers gone? Gone to cosmetologists every one.


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