When Jeff James opened Rod, Gun and Barbers five years ago, he decorated it with a moose head, antlers, fishing gear, pictures of motorcycles and even a few of his own paintings.
The decor of the Toronto barbershop may harken back to a version of masculinity in which fewer guys seem to actually participate – how many men really hunt or repair their own car any more – but James isn’t alone in operating this kind of grooming space. In fact, you can’t throw a vintage straight razor in most major Canadian cities without hitting one.
It’s somewhat surprising that, at a time when traditional ideas about masculinity are in flux, when the #MeToo movement and Donald Trump’s “locker-room talk” have revealed the ugliness of traditional manliness, barbershops such as James’s are still flourishing across North America.
While that throwback to the past appeals to many of his clients, the salon industry as a whole is becoming much more gender neutral. The Vacancy Project, a popular salon in New York, bills itself as a gender neutral salon and offers clients a wide array of genderless haircuts. Don’t expect to see any antlers on the wall there – or even different pricing for “men’s” and “women’s” services.
Instead of anything retro, similar spaces such as The Lounge Soho and Barbarette in Britain are embracing a more contemporary view of the world.
So why are so many men still nostalgic for the traditional barbershop? It is a place, some say, that allows men to travel back to a time when they didn’t have to question masculinity, or feel guilty about its toxic aspects.
“I think barbershops can be really important communal spaces, but they can also be reprieves for men who might feel intimidated by shifting gender relations outside of the barbershop,” says Kristen Barber, a sociologist at Southern Illinois University and author of Styling Masculinity: Gender, Class and Inequality in the Men’s Grooming Industry.
“If you could go to a place where it’s a bunch of men and there’s some sort of reassurance that you’re a man, I think that can be something that men, whether they know it or not, are seeking out.”
Ever since the lumbersexual rolled up his flannel shirt sleeves, scratched his bushy beard and shoved the metrosexual out of the cultural spotlight, barbershops have been witnessing a cultural resurgence. In the United States, the National Association of Barber Boards of America estimates the number of barbershops has grown by 10 per cent annually since 2013, following a 23-per-cent decrease from 1992 to 2012. Although data is not available in Canada, anecdotally it seems clear that barbershops are on the rise here as well. In fact, many say it’s a boom.
“The last six years it has exploded,” says Matty Conrad, owner of Victory Barber and Brand. He opened his first shop in Victoria and now operates three others, as well as selling his own line of beard oils and coffee. There is a moose head hanging on the wall of his first barbershop. Old jazz, classic blues and southern rock play on vinyl. The front waiting room looks like a bar from an old saloon.
“What it provides is that camaraderie,” Conrad says of the barbershop’s appeal. “There’s a need in a man, I think, once in a while to connect with his friends or connect with people that are like him and really just feel part of a crowd, feel part of a team, feel part of the club. If it wasn’t something that appealed to guys, we would have closed down very quickly.”
Conrad wasn’t the only barber I spoke to who referred to barbershops as a club. In fact, all of them did. “It’s like a boys’ club,” Karim Juma, owner of Salon Kreative, in Toronto, said. “You get away from the daily stress. Guys like to talk about their work, their relationships, whatever.”
Rod, Gun and Barbers’s James, a former bartender who began cutting hair in 2010, was very much thinking about men’s clubs when he opened his spot in Toronto’s west end. “I was thinking about small town sort of places where men went to have their sort of parliament and it was the barbershop and it was the rod and gun club,” he says.
The last time I was at Rod, Gun and Barbers, I met a man named Bob Goulart, a 50-year-old creative director of an advertising firm. Goulart ordered a bourbon while his 14-year-old son, Luca, got his haircut. Goulart looked around at the dartboard, the fish hanging above the bar, the deer head on the wall and tried to parse what it all represents. “It does harken back to a simpler time,” he said.
Goulart likes listening to the barber’s banter, he told me. He likes the look of the place. He’s not thrilled that there’s a stack of vintage Playboy magazines on the bar, but it’s nothing worse than what his son could easily find online with his phone.
“This place is really just a comfortable place to hang out,” he said.