You can learn how to give yourself a fantastic shave, but unless you are magnificently talented, you’ll never be able to give yourself a fantastic haircut. That’s something you’re going to have to outsource to a barber, and it’s pretty darn important: you’re basically entrusting someone to help shape your appearance—the look that you’ll be presenting to everyone you meet—so you’re going to want to get it right. But if you’re like most men you need to know how to find a good barber.
Finding the right barbershop is a process, but once you find the place that’s perfect for you, it’s worth the effort. In this post, I’ll discuss how to find a good barber, and go over the six things you’ll want to keep in mind when you’re looking for the right barbershop.
The Place is Clean
Obvious, right? No. I’ve been to plenty of barbershops that look like they got hit by hurricanes. These places may look great when the Board of Health comes through, but the rest of the time, they look terrible.
So when you walk in, make sure the place is well-kept and organized. Is the floor swept clean of hair? Is the equipment clean and properly sanitized? Do the barbers themselves look well-groomed and presentable?
You’ll have a pretty clear idea of how clean the place is when you step through the door, so if something doesn’t sit right with you, simply leave and look someplace else. It’s very unlikely that you’re going to get a great haircut in a messy barbershop.
You Know Why You’re There
Next up in our “How to Find a Good Barber” discussion: your barbershop should provide for you the best haircut you can get in your local community. This seems like an obvious one, but bear with me, because it’s important, and a lot of guys seem to go to barbershops for the wrong reasons.
For the longest time, I went to an old-school barber shop in a run-down area of my city. It had a sort of fading charm, and it looked like it had been beaten down over the years: the chairs were old, the magazines were old, and the BARBERS were old—very old, in fact. The owner was a man named Salvatore, and he had to be in his 80s, although I never asked him, so I can’t be sure. The other guys were in their 70s, and there was only one guy who was in his 30s or 40s. They were all Italian guys and Polish guys who didn’t talk too much, and that was absolutely fine by me—I don’t talk too much either, so I liked that the silence in the place. It was close to my apartment, haircuts were less than $20, and I felt like I was contributing to my local economy by bringing them business. I was happy to go there.
Fast forward a few years and I’m engaged, and my fiancée says to me: “Listen, I know that you like that place. The old guys and the old magazines and all that. But we’re getting married in six months, and they give terrible haircuts. They just do. You, yourself, are attractive, but the haircuts… could be better. Please, please, please find a place that gives a good haircut before the wedding. Pay some more, if you have to. Pay a lot more, if you have to.”
That was a reasonable request, and she was right. I always knew that they weren’t FANTASTIC barbers, they were just guys who got the job done. And on more than one occasion, I had to go back to the shop and ask them to re-do things and even me out. I couldn’t risk that as the wedding drew near, because a wedding is kind of like the Super Bowl of grooming—it’s the big day, everyone is watching, and you need to be certain you look your best.
So I looked around and found a barbershop-dash-salon place in a wealthier part of the city and made an appointment. It was kind of a hybrid place, where they had old school equipment and decor, but the barbers were all young-ish men and women in their 20s and 30s who were very, very attractive. They charged THREE times as much for a cut and I found that a little appalling, but there were a lot of good-looking, well-groomed people coming out of the place, so I made a reservation and I went.
I’m a little embarrassed at how much better I looked after my first cut. I got compliments from a surprising number of people, and even I thought—and I’ve always liked the way I look—even I thought, “I look exceptionally good.” And as I walked out of the new place, I realized something: my old barbers were probably blind. Literally. There were all in their 70s and 80s and not a single one of them wore glasses. I had been enjoying the old-school atmosphere of my old-school barbershop, while I was having my hair cut by guys who literally had vision problems.
When I came back from the new place, my fiancée (who is now my wife) said me to “Oh my gosh WOW you look amazing babe thank you!” and because she’s a wonderful and fair woman, didn’t give me any “I told you so” or “Aren’t you glad you…” treatment, which I appreciated.
The point is: I understand there’s a sort of old-school charm to the aging barber shop, and I’m glad I went there for so many years. It’s a nice throw-back to times when we weren’t so obsessed with “the customer experience” and keeping up appearances and that sort of thing. But at the end of the day, the new expensive place is so far superior, it’s absurd for me to ever go back to the old place. There’s a lot of nostalgia related to old-school barbershops, and that can be a great thing, provided you’re getting a high-quality haircut. That’s Job #1, as they say.
I’ve since gone to other places, but I am very, very glad I went to that new-school joint, and left that old place.
They Listen and Ask Questions
One thing I noticed about the old barbershop was that no matter what instructions I gave them, I always came away with a haircut that was basically “a little shorter on the sides and a little shorter on the top.” No matter what I threw at them, I always walked out with the same basic haircut.
When you’re checking out a new barbershop, tell them exactly what you want, and see how they react. Do they ask questions before they get started, or do they dive right in? If they ask questions, it means they want to make sure they’re meeting your needs, and that they’re detail-oriented, which is a very good trait in a barber. Do they give you suggestions? It’s not a prerequisite, but it’s another good sign—it means they’ve looked at your current cut, sized you up, and are willing to share their knowledge to get you the cut you want.
Communication is a really important skill in a barber, because the exchange of words is the only way the barber is going to know what you want done. Ultimately, you want your barber to listen intently and get your exact specifications, and deliver on them.
Men Only or Mixed?
This is a matter of personal taste, but it’s an important consideration. By definition, a barbershop is a place that gives haircuts to men, and traditionally, all the barbers were men. In days of yore—or at least, in our imagined days of yore—a barbershop was a manly place, full of men, and full of men only. The barbers were all men, the patrons were all men, and the conversations were, presumably, all about prostate problems and sports.
Today, you’ve got options. There’s the old-school type of barber shop I’ve mentioned above (where all the barbers are men), but there are also high-end barber shops that offer a kind of “throw-back” experience (where the barbers are usually all men), and barber-shop-slash-salon hybrids, like the place I got my wedding haircut (where the barbers are both men and women). The point is that you, as a man, are free to go to any of those, and that means you can get your hair cut among only men or among men and women alike.
There are advantages to the “men only” option, and the biggest is that you can be a little more relaxed when you’re among men only, and you can talk a little freely about things you might not discuss in mixed company. And there are advantages to being in a “mixed” scenario, in that—put simply—it’s always nice to be in the company of women.
In my experience, the best haircuts I’ve gotten are in barber shops that have only men as their patrons, but who have men and women working as barbers. That seems to be the difference, as far as I can tell—a kind of mix of the new (female barbers and modern haircuts) and the old (straight-razor shaves, traditional tools, and that sort of thing).
Just to throw this out there, because I’ve heard it from a few men, and I disagree—I don’t buy the idea that only male barbers can give men good haircuts; the female barber I’ve been going to for the last year or two is, far and away, the best barber I’ve ever been to, and I usually have to wait a week or two to get an appointment. If you’re in the “I’ll only have my hair cut by male barbers” camp, I won’t try and convert you—going to a barber shop that only employs male barbers is a great experience, and I wouldn’t knock it—but be aware you may be excluding some fantastic barbers if you limit yourself to only male barbers.
For sure, there are some terrible female barbers out there, but there are also some terrible male barbers out there. Some of them work in my neighborhood and have vision problems.
Our next tip on how to find a good barber is…
The Barbershop Has Perks You Like
This is another thing I had no idea about when I was going to the old place: there are some really luxurious, really relaxing perks that come with going to a high-end place.
For starters, when I walk into the new place, I always get offered a beer, which I always accept (I think it’s important to be polite, and I think it’s important to drink all the free beer you can drink). The new place kind of made me a lifer at that moment. I don’t think it’s legal for them to be giving out beers without a liquor license, but I’m not going to be the guy who complains about it.
Second, after they give me a shave, they put a hot-and-moist towel scented with eucalyptus and mint over my face and left it there for a few minutes. The first time I experienced this, I thought, I’ve never been to a spa, but… I might have to change that. It felt incredible.
Lastly, the woman who was my barber washed my hair in a fancy-shaped sink that I could lean back into. It was incredibly relaxing, and it’s the kind of luxury that a barbershop has to be set up for. If I had asked one of the barbers at my old barber shop to wash my hair, he might have punched me, and I wouldn’t have blamed him.
I feel a little spoiled about it—a little pampered—but I have to admit that I love these perks. They feel great and I’m willing to pay for them. If you like perks, don’t be embarrassed about it, and find a place that offers what you want.
It’s Got the Right Vibe
This seems like another silly one, but it’s important. What kind of experience are you looking for? Subdued and quiet, social and upbeat, sophisticated and posh? If you live in a city or semi-urban environment, chances are you’ve got plenty of options.
Many of the barbershops in my community are local gathering spots, and they’re open until about midnight, because neighborhood folks come in and chit chat and talk about the neighborhood. They’re important to the community, and they keep people from the neighborhood connected. Plus, they’re fun—I’ve been to a few of them for get-togethers, and I’ve had a great time.
That’s not really my scene, though, when I’m getting a haircut. When I’m getting a haircut, I prefer to space out a little bit, and be alone with my thoughts. It’s not that I have a hard time talking to people—people always assume that I’m an extrovert, because I seem to look very comfortable talking to others—but I’d rather just keep to myself, most of the time. So I choose to go to barbershops that are a little more subdued and quiet (and a little posh, I guess—turns out I really like those hot towels).
Remember, though, that you’re still there for a haircut. When I look back, the reason I went to that awful place run by the old blind guys is because I liked the vibe. It was quiet, nobody tried to make small talk with me, and I could collect my thoughts and veg out a little—but the haircuts were awful.
If you like the vibe but don’t like the work they do, you probably need to keep looking, and maybe come back only for the social aspect of the place.
Go to a Couple of Places and You’ll Find What You’re Looking For
Unless you decide to start shaving your head—and that’s a fantastic look for a lot of guys, and one we’ve discussed in a lot of posts—you’re going to be getting your hair cut at an establishment. Take the time to find a place that you really like. If you actually enjoy the experience—if they provide excellent service, have the vibe you like, the perks you like, and do excellent work—going to the barbershop goes from being something you put off to something you look forward to.
It’s your choice, so put in the legwork to find someplace that you like and that you enjoy visiting. Your fiancée will thank you.
Michael Morris is the head writer here at Rough and Tumble Gentleman. He's got a ducktail beard and loves Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He's married to the woman of his dreams and lives in Brooklyn, NY.