What's Behind The Barber Boom In Downtown St. John's?

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Over the past few years, a new wave of barber shops have opened in St. John's, Newfoundland. | Getty Images

When Family Barber Shop on Duckworth Street shut down its doors for good in 2011, the number of options for men to get their haircuts downtown was waning.

If you were looking to grab a cut on your lunch break at work, or before you headed out for a drink, you'd have to leave the downtown core and head up to another neighbourhood.

From Stan's Barber Shop on Mayor Avenue in Rabbittown to Harris' Barber Shop on Casey Street, the neighbourhood barbershop in St John's is still very much alive.

Some of these barbershops have been open for decades, and ownership has often been passed down through generations. They're a reliable and consistent place to get an affordable haircut in town.

But over the past few years, a new wave of barber shops have opened in the city. If you've been out on George Street recently, you've probably noticed their impact. More and more men are walking around the city with new and more complex hairstyles.

Whether they're opting for a tapered look, a longer flow, or a Hollywood-influenced fade, the change is noticeable.

'On our game at all times'

Leading the move away from classic cuts towards more inventive ones is Fogtown Barber and Shop. Since Fogtown opened in the wake of Family Barber Shop downtown in 2011, the market for increasingly stylized cuts has grown.

Rather than sitting down for a quick trim, or a rudimentary, military-style cut, many men in town are actively courting new looks and hairstyles.

According to Fogtown co-owner Chris Evans, the change in how men look at their appearance these days might just be because of Facebook.

"Now everything is documented [in] pictures and video, and we just feel like we need to look our best and be on our game at all times," he said in an interview. 

"I don't think guys are necessarily fussier, but socially we're just forced to pay more attention to our appearance." says Evans.

Indeed, the ubiquitous presence of Facebook and selfie culture might be a defining culprit when it comes to why men are paying more attention to their look these days. But it also may be a general softening of the way society views men's fashion. It's no longer considered gauche to have a more stylized look. According to Evans, men's cuts have evolved quite a bit since he grew up in the slacker-infused 1990s.

"I grew up really in the kind of grungy punk rock era of the Nineties. If you were really combing your hair and giving it a side part and all that, it was just dorky. But nowadays you can really rock that look, because we're seeing a bit more of a mixture of the high and the low, you don't have to just be all about the punk rock or be total GQ you can kind of be a little bit of both. It's just an amalgamation of style."

Inspiring competitors

Fogtown currently has a two-week lead time for people looking to book an appointment and the shop has recently added a third chair to try and keep up with demand. But the success of Fogtown has not gone unnoticed; two similar shops have opened up downtown within a one-kilometre  radius of the shop's small base at the bottom of Prescott Street. 

According to Phil Pennell, the owner of Phil's on Duckworth Street, the rise of the new barbers is partly about filling a clear void in the marketplace.

"If you're looking for a service that's not there, you kind of have to create it. So I found a lot of people now our age are just creating things that have always needed to be downtown, which is a very hard place to get something to happen so it needs to be growing. I find downtown's starting to grow again where it was shrinking." says Pennell.

Nineteen-year-old Jeremy Edgar opened up Top Notch Barber Shop on nearby Bates Hill in September. The shop opened after Edgar spent time apprenticing at Central Barber Shop in the Avalon Mall.

There's no denying that Fogtown was a clear inspiration for the shop. It showed Edgar the feasibility of a modern barbershop in St. John's.

"There hasn't been a barber college in Newfoundland since 1997, so it's a very underemployed industry. Myself, Phil and Fogtown all of us are usually booked up on a 2 or 3 week basis depending on the time of year" says Edgar.

New wave doing nothing new: veteran 

Since Fogtown opened in 2011, there's been a huge change in the market for barbers downtown. But according to Rick Harris, the owner of the 110-year-old Harris Barber Shop on Casey Street, the new shops aren't doing anything he hasn't seen before.

"They're saying they're old time barbers, but it's a new wave coming through is what it is. They're not creating nothing new, it's impossible, I can tell you that," Harris said in an interview. 

"When I went at it first in 1966, long hair was just starting to become part of it, and I was saying to my dad short hair will never come back, and he said to me, 'Yes, it will.' And sure enough, it's back, isn't it."

Harris's father opened the shop in 1905, and Harris still charges about $10.50 for a cut today. He has customers that have been coming to him since almost before they can remember, first getting their hair cut from his father, and later from himself.

"The oldest fella I've got coming here has just turned 90, and he's been coming to this barber shop for 78 years."

If you stick with a barber long enough, chances are they'll see you through many of your life's major events: weddings, births, health troubles, professional advancements. And for many patrons, there's a strong comfort in that.

But one thing that's not quite present in the new wave of barber shops is alcohol. Although you can grab a quick beer while you get your haircut at Fogtown, there's none of the drunken revelry that characterized the old shops.

"There was a lot of drunken barbers in St John's years ago, I can tell you that. A lot of alcoholic barbers," Harris told me.  

"There was one old fellow over on Long's Hills area and he wouldn't cut your hair in the morning, he'd send you down for a bottle of wine. He had to have a drink of wine in the morning to get the shakes out of him." says Harris. 

'No intentions of packing it in'

But there were rarely accidents, even as some barbers still conducted straight razor shaves when they were half in the bag.  

Harris recalls his father being a master of the straight razor shave, at any level of inebriation: "He'd be drunk, pretty well full, and he'd get fellas in the chair and give a shave."

Harris began to take over the shop from his father in 1966, but at the time he had no plans to make barbering a career.

Certain professions grow in and out of relevance, but as long as people's hair continues to grow, there will always be a need for barbers.

Nearly 49 years later, Rick Harris is still doing steady business on Casey Street.

"I went at it for one year, and I guess the lure of money when you're young, that's something for your soul. I was going to go to school and do electrician school, and after a year when I was accepted to go to school, I stayed in the shop and I've been here ever since.

"With no intentions of packing it in."

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