Chicago Sun-Times: Grid

Chicago Sun-Times: Grid

The Chicago Sun-Times are doing a center section called Chicago Grid.
Check out this issue that came out in Sunday’s paper.


“Barbershops are bringing a buzz back to North Side neighborhoods”
The recession and the shop local movement have met to send men back to the basics, and a new wave of barbers are riding the tide.
Chicago Sun-Times: Chicago Grid
Sunday June 2nd 2013 Issue
By Amy Merrick

Kellan Cartledge, a 23-year-old architect, walks into Pete’s Barbershop in Avondale. His hair’s slicked back, looking a little like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby.

“This guy’s my makeover of the year!” Pete Huels, the shop’s owner, shouts. “I got some nice compliments on your Instagram picture. You looked like Justin Bieber.”

“Is that Justin Bieber?” calls Mike Weinberg from the back room. Weinberg, Huels’ only other barber, is playing Madden on Xbox with another customer.

Later, Huels turns his attention to customer Mat Ransom, who’s getting a “pomp,” the scaled-back version of a pompadour. When he’s finished, Huels holds up the mirror for Ransom, a 33-year-old behavior-modification specialist for special-education students. Both guys grin.

“Papi,” Huels says. “Look at that.”

Across town in Lakeview, Colin Jamieson, a 26-year-old law student at DePaul, drops by Andre’s Barber Shop to get a trim from owner Kirk Merchant, 35. It’s all walk-in business. $20 a haircut, cash only.

“Lot of pressure today, Kirk,” he says. “Graduation is Sunday. My parents are going to be in town.” He wants the usual: shorter on the sides, longer on top. Merchant pulls out the clippers.

Before he discovered Merchant’s shop, Jamieson got his hair cut at a salon. But like a lot of guys, he never could explain to women exactly what he wanted — he just knew it when he saw it. “This is more of a personal relationship,” he says. “It’s also like a sitcom. All kinds of guys come in and just hang out.”

The two shops don’t look much alike. Merchant bought his in 2011 and left things as they were: worn white linoleum, ancient cash register, black-and-white photo of the previous owner, Andre, cutting hair in 1960. Huels is a horror film buff, a fact that’s easy to discern. His customers wait beneath a photograph of a lingerie-clad woman being menaced by Frankenstein and a Texas Chainsaw Massacre poster. Huels sports full-sleeve tattoos, a pointy mustache and an enormous beard. Merchant is clean-shaven, his hair slicked back with pomade.

But if the two entrepreneurs vary in their personal aesthetics, they’re both riding the same wave. After a decades-long stretch when most men’s haircuts happened at chains like Sport Clips and Supercuts, a younger generation of barbers is opening a spate of new barber shops in the city. Across the state, barbers’ licenses are up 4% in the past year, from 5,292 last July to 5,530 in May, according to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation.

But the movement is most evident on the streets of North Side neighborhoods like Logan Square and Lakeview, recently populated with storefronts owned by barbers who spend most of their day giving haircuts. Like craft-beer brewers and farmer’s market organizers, they’re harnessing the popularity of patronizing locally owned business. Merchant recently changed the name of his family’s North Michigan Ave. barbershop from Truefitt & Hill (a name it had licensed from the London establishment that bills itself as the oldest barbershop in the world) to Merchant & Rhoades, partly to emphasize the shop’s local ownership.

The history of barbering runs deep in Chicago, where A.B. Moler founded the nation’s first barber school in 1893. Moler was the first inductee into the National Barber Hall of Fame, in 1965 — about the time the number of licensed barbers peaked in the U.S. at around 350,000, says Charles Kirkpatrick, executive director of the National Association of Barber Boards of America.

Kirkpatrick blames Elvis for what happened next. As guys grew their hair long, their need for regular trims plunged — and with it, the number of barbers, which bottomed out at around 195,000 in the late 1970s, just as the King was exiting the building.

Recently, though, demand has picked up. Licensed barbers are back up to about 259,000 nationwide, according to Kirkpatrick.

Ask barbers why barbershops are making a comeback, and they’ll describe a growing desire for quality services, increased support for local businesses and a renewed interest in old ways of doing things. They’ll cite TV series like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire, which have revived haircuts like the pompadour. Kirkpatrick thinks short cuts stay popular when a country is involved in one war after another.

Credit the recession, too, for reminding men they can get a barbershop haircut for $15 to $20, instead of paying $40 or more at a salon. “A lot of guys are just starting to get back to basic things,” says Jon Brija, who opened Irving Park Barbershop in North Center about 10 months ago. He also sees a changing of the guard. “A lot of guys are like a lost dog,” Brija says, wandering into his shop and saying, “Tony cut my hair for 25 years.”

Huels argues it’s because men give men a better haircut. “Guys are tired of going to salons and getting crappy haircuts,” he says. “I’m concentrating on one thing for 10 or 12 hours a day. I’m not doing color and roller sets.”

The variety of explanations for the uptick underscores the fickleness of pinning one’s livelihood on something as slippery as the zeitgeist. “For every movie that takes place in the ‘20s, ‘30s or ‘40s, we get a bump in business,” says Billy Stump, who opened Chicago Barbershop in Bucktown in March 2013. If HBO pulls the plug on Boardwalk Empire or Hollywood turns its attentions elsewhere, will business suffer?

Joe Caccavella Jr. of Joe’s Barber Shop in Logan Square thinks that with so many barbershops opening, there could eventually be a shakeout. “A couple of years ago, the same thing happened with tattoo shops,” he says. New places seemed to open up on every corner, but many were run by people who didn’t have a lot of experience. Now many tattoo parlors are closing, leaving only the quality businesses, he says.

One reason to suspect the market might be glutted is that it doesn’t cost much to start a barbershop. After a career as a union painter and a brief turn as a 28-year-old art school freshman, Huels went to barber school and opened his own shop. His wife found his two barber chairs in a Craigslist ad for $1,000. The hot-towel machine was $250, the shaving-cream machine $150.

For now, even with the increase in competition, there seems to be more than enough business to go around. Joe’s Barber Shop has gone from two chairs to three, two barbers to four, five days a week to six. On a recent Tuesday at lunchtime, the shop was packed with guys waiting their turn. The space is only 150 square feet. “We need to knock out a wall,” Caccavella says.

At Belmont Barbershop, owner Josh Cooley has expanded from two chairs to seven since opening in 2005. He had to get rid of his pool table and couches to make room. And Huels, who officially opens at 9 a.m. on Saturday mornings, says customers start lining up around 8.

Of course, not every morning is Saturday, and barbers say their biggest challenge is the ebb and flow of the service industry. On slow days, they sit around. When they’re slammed, customers get fed up.

One way they even out their workload is to direct the customers to their friends’ shops. At Pete’s, Huels keeps the addresses of Chicago Barbershop and Irving Park Barbershop on a Post-It next to his chair for the times he can’t keep up with demand.

“We’re all competing, but we also are friendly enough to send people over,” Cooley says. “I’d rather you support a local barber shop than go to a Supercuts or a chain where you don’t know whether your money’s going to stay in town.”

Huels takes the communitarian perspective even further. “In my eyes, there is no competition,” he says. “Do you expect to cut every guy’s head in the city of Chicago? There’s plenty of heads for everybody to cut.”

The surge in new business comes as barbershops try out various forms of marketing and social media. Perhaps the most aggressive promoter is Caccavella.

Before becoming a barber and joining his father in the Logan Square shop, Caccavella worked in marketing for a number of companies, including Harley-Davidson and Freightliner, and he’s used that experience to raise the profile of Joe’s Barber Shop. “I see myself more as an owner than a barber,” he says.

Caccavella has sent a truck to hot-rod shows and had barbers offer haircuts and shaves. In the past few weeks, he says, he got six new customers who discovered Joe’s Barber Shop through a car show in Des Moines.

Another innovation: “Hangover Shave Sundays,” where once a month, guys get a haircut, burger, beer and Italian ice for $30. Several weeks ago, at the first barbecue of the season, the cramped shop was slammed.

Like Huels, Caccavella posts photos of his handiwork on Instagram. And like Huels, who has tattoos of a straight razor, and clippers, Caccavella’s found cheap, permanent space for advertising — he and two other barbers have barber poles inked onto their middle fingers.

With demand for barbers’ services increasing, it can be tough for shops to find and hold onto good barbers. At Andre’s, Merchant’s popular second barber left six months ago, and he’s been looking for a new guy since. Before bringing Weinberg on in September, Huels also looked for six months to find a good barber to man his second chair.

The shortage stems in part from the time and expense involved with getting licensed. Many of the new Chicago barbers perform their required 1,500 hours of training at Success Schools LLC, which opened its first Chicago location in the Loop three years ago. Founder Joe Barsic charges $18,000 for 10-and-a-half months of full-time study, and has about 120 students. Barsic says he has a 100 percent placement rate.

Although it’s currently easy to find work, barbers who don’t own their own shops operate without a net. In general, they work as independent contractors. They rent their chairs, pay their own taxes, and they don’t get benefits. Kirkpatrick says a lack of affordable health insurance is one of the biggest obstacles to getting more barbers.

But the shortage may now be easing, as word spreads that barbers are getting steady gigs. Since hiring Weinberg, Huels says six or seven barbers have contacted him looking for a place to cut. “The problem is, they’re all young kids,” he says. “Surprisingly enough, I do have a standard here. I like things done a certain way.”

So does Dan Lucas, a 35-year-old union power lineman. Standing outside Joe’s, Lucas has a quick response for why a younger generation is migrating toward the barber shop: “Being able to talk like dudes.”

Photos by Sara Mays

Comments are closed.

Scroll To Top