Their three-year fixation with barbershops began with an innocent stroll through Montreal's Mile-End neighbourhood, an area once known as a stronghold of Orthodox Jews but increasingly populated by bohemian francophones and other artsy types.
Documentary filmmaker Tally Abecassis and her camera-toting colleague Claudine Sauvé were walking along Fairmount Street when they spotted the Hollywood Barbershop: "a romantic place with all these black and white photographs of movie stars, and an older gentleman, Michel, cutting hair in a purple, iridescent robe," Abecassis remembers.
Intrigued, they walked in. Four hours later, the two young women left Michel's shop determined to write a book about the kitsch and characters who thrive in these humble country clubs for Everyman.
Recently they put the finishing touches on the 176-page Barbershops, filled with more than 200 photographs of dozens of barbershops scattered throughout Montreal. Abecassis, 31, and Sauvé, 32, hit places with names such as Chez Lucien, Salon Umberto, Black Touch and Fades, a hip-hop Caribbean barbershop.
They met ordinary men, as well as women, who take great pride in donning a cloak each day, make a meagre living, but have incredibly fulfilled lives. "The barbers we met were inspiring," Abecassis says. "They just seemed to have such life knowledge. And they were humble, with great senses of humour.
"The book," she adds, "is a tribute to one of the last remaining authentic spaces in our urban environment. To a time when waiting in line was an excuse for a chat and when looking tip-top was a personal mantra."
The book, published by British-based Black Dog Publishing and distributed in Canada by Codasat, will be on shelves in early June.
Sauvé, who is currently in Haiti shooting a documentary on nuns, turned her lens on the barbers' counters cluttered with combs, lotions, photographs and religious bric-a-brac. She took pictures of men with swoopy mustaches getting their nose hair trimmed. Of battered leather, swivel chairs. Of a woman, named Toula, who got out of cutting women's hair years ago because the dames were way too hard to please. She took photographs, too, of Menick, the irrepressible sports barber, who has his floor painted like a hockey rink and has tables made out of sticks and baseball bats.
The Montreal-born women also wrote about the bond between client and barber: "Once the relationship is forged, the bond can remain intact for years, outlasting friendship and some of the strongest marriages." They did a section on the history of the barber profession (it originated in ancient Egypt where barbering services were performed for the Egyptian nobility). They also included some of the personal musings of these scissor-wielding sages: "Sometimes I ask why there are 12 gods," confesses Panagis. "12 apostles, 12 in the dozen in measurements, 12 months, 12 hours of the day, and 12 of the night. Nobody has ever given me the answer."
There is also a section devoted to different types of mustaches, including the Dewey, Chaplin, Ringo, Horseshoe, Strip Teaser, Dali and Mistletoe, to name a few.
The barbershop owners, often of Greek or Italian descent, created culture-soaked nesting grounds, with regulars who hung out for the entire day. "We'd say to them, 'What do you do here? Why do you come?' " Abecassis laughs.
"And they would look at us, and quip, 'What? Do you think I want to spend every day with my wife?' "
Unfortunately, she adds, the barbershop is fading into extinction. "Everybody we spoke to said they're not going to be there much longer," says Abecassis, who has a documentary on taxidermy, called Lifelike, screening now at Toronto's Hot Docs festival.
"They're getting older, and many of the barbers are no longer interested in working such long hours any more. And no one's coming up behind them."
That observation, she adds, makes her and Sauvé both very sad. "The corporatization of everything has made the world so homogeneous.
"Barbershops are a throwback to a time when personal presentation was so important.
"If their walls could talk, they would tell of boys' first visits with their fathers . . . of great arguments held, of friendships made, broken, and made again. They are small, but important, institutions," she concludes.
"With great heart and soul."