joi , 5 decembrie 2019

Why hipster barbershops don’t work for me anymore

In 2015, at the „Jack & Sons” barbershop in Atlanta

Haircuts have been a nice treat for me since I was very little. It’s a pampering experience and if all goes well, you leave the shop looking and feeling a little better than when you came in. There are fond memories of my dad taking me to get a haircut on a Saturday morning or afternoon. It was an early form of escapism. I’ve got a nostalgia for old time barbershops, too, with the striped poles and the people who still know how to do a wet shave or how to contour a beard.

It was a few years ago that my friend Daniel Martin came walking behind the bar (he was a bartender then) and looked extra dapper. Without me commenting, he handed me a business card for a barbershop called „The Shave” in the Virginia Highlands neighborhood of Atlanta. He mentioned that I would like the place and that the best barber was a guy named Michael Sponsel.

It wasn’t easy to get a haircut with Michael, because „The Shave” doesn’t take appointments (something that is a little irritating). Eventually I got a haircut from him and, without a doubt, it was the best haircut in my entire life. This is not an exaggeration.

We started to talk and he seemed very passionate about his work and his story of how he came to Atlanta really caught my attention. A seed had been planted and I thought, maybe he would be a good interview. For 14 years now I’ve been hosting a talk show, interviewing mostly creative artists on FM radio. My show is now a national podcast on iTunes and Stitcher. I had never interviewed a barber before, but there is certainly an art to what they do. Why couldn’t I interview someone who works with hair the way some artists work with oil, watercolors or a piano / guitar? I returned a second time on a day I was feeling the blues. What can I say! The man is an artist. Bona fide. My mood was improved and it didn’t hurt that there were plenty of unsolicited compliments. There were others who gave me a great haircut at „The Shave”, but admittedly, Sponsel was a hair above the rest. He’s that good.

I like „The Shave” just fine, but to me the concept of no appointments only works if you have a very unstructured day. I’ve got stuff to do. Sure, they make it seem easy. They like to spin it that they’re an old school barbershop and therefore don’t take appointments. Well, I have had some extremely long waits to get my hair cut there. Sometimes I have somewhere I have to be at, say, 5 PM. If I show up at 3 PM, I can’t say that I will get a haircut until 4 PM. If the haircut and beard trim takes a half hour, I may be cutting it too close in order to arrive on time for my 5:00 meeting. Atlanta traffic, as everyone knows, can be treacherous.

Businesses and people that pretend to be more important than they really are

The last time I tried to get a haircut there, there were so many questions asked about where I was in the city, how long it would take me to get there, etc., that I began to think “to hell with this.” Connor, the polite guy on the phone with „The Shave,” asked me if I could be there in 10 minutes (which if you think about it, kind of sounds like an appointment) and I told him the truth. It would be more like 20 minutes. Connor calmly replied “that’s not going to work for us.” I felt that was a profound statement and described the growing feeling I had for businesses and people that pretend to be more important than they really are.

I called someplace else and they said “Sure. Get here when you can.” It was a good haircut and not expensive, but not cheap either. It didn’t take long. I started to wonder if “The Shave-type” of trendier shops were even worth it. Sure, they do an excellent job. However, I started to realize the relaxation wasn’t there. Of course I wanted them to take the craft of haircutting seriously. But, how seriously? Is it really life or death?

I decided to google the Sponsel. I was delighted and happy to learn that he had opened „Freedom Barber Co.” His own shop! I felt very excited for him and wondered: do they take appointments? I smiled when I read they did. It made me remember the idea to have him on the program to interview him. So, I reached out. I needed a beard trim and haircut and liked the idea of giving business to an independent barbershop and also promoting them. He agreed to not only cut my hair, but also to be a guest on the show. We set it for a Thursday afternoon. The haircut first and then we’d record the interview.

I live outside of Atlanta and realize you have to be prepared for traffic to change from bad to worse in minutes. Using the GPS on my phone, I was set to arrive on time. The interstate was congested, but was mild when compared to when I took my exit. I phoned them to tell them I was running late and they said it was okay. The traffic got much worse and the GPS approximate time of arrival kept adding on minutes. They called back and said we’d have to reschedule. My fault.

We rescheduled for a Saturday. I would get my haircut and then we would do the interview by phone. After running back inside my house to grab something I was going to give Sponsel, the GPS said it was going to take 47 minutes to arrive at Freedom Barber Co. due to two auto collisions on the interstate. I didn’t want to be late again, so I did my best driving/maneuvering and the GPS had me exit Interstate 85 to take a detour, which shaved a few minutes off of the trip. There was some traffic, but not too bad. My appointment was at 3:30 PM and I pulled into the parking lot at 3:35 PM. This barbershop is located inside Paris on Ponce – a very cool spot and as I found out, very busy on Saturdays. There was no parking spot to be found. A kindly older lady saw me and offered some assistance on where to park, and I walked inside with a bladder that I had been ignoring for the last half of my trip.

The 7-minute rule

I felt like at least I made it. I had a bushy head of hair and an unruly beard and cash in pocket. To make up for the previous debacle, I was planning to tip at least 50%, and contemplated giving even more. I looked at my clock and walked inside Freedom Barber Co. at 3:40 PM. It would be the very last time, or so I believe. I was late. Late is late. Nobody is to blame, but me. I felt bad that I was late after the last fiasco. The guy at the front went to get Michael Sponsel.

Sponsel walked up to me and said “Good to see you. I’m going to have to reschedule. It’s now 3:41 and we have a 7-minute rule, because we don’t like to rush.” Obviously, this was a little disheartening. I explained that I had a little trouble finding a spot to park. He said he was aware of the situation and apologized and offered to reschedule. Hey, I take the blame for being tardy. I asked him if there was any way he could do the cut. He said that he was the best rated barbershop in Atlanta because of the high standards that they keep. I respect that.

He proposed Monday or Tuesday. I considered it for a few seconds. Then, I think we had a moment of understanding. I knew I wouldn’t be coming back. He knew I wouldn’t be coming back. Life is short.

An interview that never took place

In addition to the time thinking of questions for the interview, there’s at least double the length of time of the interview to edit, master and mix the audio. There’s the graphic design to create the images for the website, social media, etc. There’s writing copy for the episode, and I had planned to invest a little in Facebook advertising for our interview, which would be good for him and good for me. A win-win that I hoped would lead him to getting new clients. All in all, we’re talking hours of labor. Maybe the shop is too busy as it is or maybe he doesn’t perceive this as having any value. Everyone has a different opinion, but there’s always someone who appreciates your help. There were no strings attached to any of this, but a little appreciation is always nice.

I left to get some grub to go and got on the phone to call the previously mentioned spot that had worked me in, in lieu of „The Shave”. I asked „are you busy?” The girl said „I can work you in.” I told her I’d be there in 10 minutes and I did. She did a good job. Was it like you’d get at „The Shave” or like I imagined „Freedom Barber” would be? No. It was good, but not great.

However, I felt like I wouldn’t be visiting those hip, cool, trendy barbershops again. They just didn’t seem relaxing to me anymore. Too much pressure and not the leisurely experience I felt when I was younger. There are places who appreciate your business and even when you’re late, they may curse under their breath, but they still work with you. I still take the fault for being late, but sometimes things happen.

I’m not blaming „Freedom Barber” for having this “7-minute” rule. Nor do I fault „The Shave” for not taking appointments. I actually admire them for running a business the way they want to. Do I recommend them? Yes, if you’re willing to deal with the egos. As mentioned, the best haircut I ever got was the work of Michael Sponsel. Other cuts I got at „The Shave” have been stellar as well. If you want to put up with a certain amount of attitude and hassle, go to those places and get the haircut of your life.

I’ve changed though. I’d rather go someplace that takes what they do seriously, but don’t take themselves so seriously. You’ll find me at places like „Jack & Sons Barber Shop,” where the old guys hang out. They don’t have any energy for nonsense. Maybe you think my standards are lower than yours or that I’m not cool anymore. That may be true, but as far as hipster barbershops go, from now on, that’s not going to work for me.


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