“They say that the Beatles destroyed the barber shop,” says Adam Castleforte, proprietor of Alder Street Barber, “but then the ’80s killed it again with the unisex salons.”
Castleforte, dressed in dark jeans, a ball cap and a black Thrival fest sweatshirt, has been operating a one-man barbershop near the border of Shadyside and East Liberty for a little over a year. A converted garage, the shop features a waiting area with an overstuffed leather couch next to a sizable bookshelf where art and travel texts share space with Bukowski and Dickens.
If guys once went to the same salons as girls to get “more scissor cuts and less clipper cutting,” now they’re returning to the barbershops, he says. “Guys just want to have a place to go and relax.”
Alder Street Barber is one of a number of barber shops that have sprung up in Pittsburgh in the past year or two that cater predominantly to men and offer contemporary haircuts alongside traditional barber services, all within a hip setting.
Call it the New Traditional.
The high maintenance ‘stache
Adam Causgrove was easy for me to spot at Bigham Tavern on a busy Friday evening: he was the guy with the mustache. In fact, he is the guy with the mustache–named the 2012 Robert Goulet Mustached American of the Year, he is also the President and Chairman of the American Mustache Institute.
“Mustache hairs are very precious,” he explains. “Because there aren’t a lot of them, and if you mess them up, you’re screwed.”
Never in my life had I witnessed a more magnificent mustache. The way it curled up at the ends reminded me of something a ragtime piano player might sport.
“The one big rule of growing a mustache, especially a styled one like this, is you never use an electric razor on it. It should always be cut with scissors.” It was a lesson Causgrove learned the hard way.
He went to an old Italian barber shop. “I’m Italian. I figure these guys know what’s up,” he says. “The barber took the electric razor, and zip, zip! And it was never the same after that. Once you mess it up, it doesn’t lay the same . . . I was just sick about it.”
What Causgrove needed was a special kind of barber shop.
Mister Grooming and Goods
In Lawrenceville, owners Michael and Heather Shurina just celebrated the one-year anniversary of their barbershop, Mister Grooming and Goods (pictured at top). The idea, said Michael, was to open “an old school barbershop with new school flare.”
I had traveled to Mister on Causgrove’s recommendation to indulge in my first straight razor shave. I was welcomed by Heather, who asked if I would like beer, coffee or water. The waiting area was full of young men, mostly in their mid-20s. Some chatted politely, others watched football on a large TV while enjoying their complimentary Iron City. Beneath the flat-screen tv were shelves lined with mustache waxes and safety razors for sale, the kind of stuff that Adam Causgrove and his colleagues at the Mustache Institute might use.
Before long, Michael called me back for my shave. Michael’s hair is shaved on the sides and coiffed straight up, higher than Travolta’s in Grease. He has tattooed arms and knuckles, and he sports a jeweled stud on his cheek, right below his eye. There’s nothing old school about him or his shop.
“We just want to have a cool space for guys to come to and get away for a little bit,” he tells me while securing an apron around my neck. “My philosophy and Heather’s philosophy is, ‘why can’t men get pampered?’”
As it turns out, there are nearly 15 steps to a straight razor shave at Mister, lasting 40 minutes altogether. There’s a pre-shave oil, three hot towels, a warm dollop of shaving cream, and then the shave. Next comes a menthol vanishing cream, more hot towels, more shaving cream, and another shave, this time against the grain. That’s followed by an astringent, an aftershave and a realization that not only did you just have the best shave of your life, but that such a thing is even possible.
Across from me, seated underneath a Shepard Fairey print, two men were enjoying a hot towel and a hand massage: “The Hangover Cure,” Mister calls it. These spa-like treatments, including manicures, pedicures and even eyebrow waxings, are all available at Mister. But Michael insists that Mister is a barbershop first and foremost, and notes that haircuts are by far their most popular service.
“If you really look into it,” he said, “old school barbers were doing shoeshines and nails. It just wasn’t out in the open.”
“Basically, we’re the best part of a salon, a barbershop and a spa all mixed together.”
Graham’s Barber Shop
Down the street from Mister, at Graham’s Barber Shop, shop owner Ryan Graham is philosophical about the role of walk-ins.
“I will never be the shop that does not take walk-ins,” says Graham. “That’s where you get your vibe, when people are waiting. If I do straight appointments, I only have one dude in my shop at a time. That’s a different vibe.”
The services on tap at Graham’s are more in line with what is available at Alder Street, mostly cuts and shaves. Tucked next to a vintage clothing store, Graham’s is distinguished by a traditional barber pole in the window set next to a logo of a gentleman with sharply parted hair, a handlebar mustache and scissors tattooed on his neck.
The logo is an appropriate approximation of the atmosphere inside. The former row house evokes a classic barbershop vibe without getting lost in the nostalgia.
“It’s retro cool, yet contemporary,” says Mark Ziegenfuss of Cranberry as Fela Kuti played on the stereo. “It’s not just come in and wham-bam chip-chop you go,” says Ziegenfuss, who was there with his son. “You meet people; it’s not just about the haircut.”
Graham, a self-described “chubby Irish kid with tattoos,” has cut in various spots in and around the city.
“I was at a couple different spots, all very different from each other. First out of barber school, I was at Michael B’s, which was like a high-end gentleman’s barbershop in Dormont. Then I left there, and I went to Pageboy down the street, which is like a vintage clothing store and a salon. Then I left there and went down to Frank’s, which is like an old man dive barbershop up on Penn.
“I’m not trying to emulate anybody really,” he continues, “but at the same time, I try to take a little something from everything: I took something from the salon, a little something from the high-end barbershop, and I took something from the old dude.”
After the father and son, it was my turn in the chair—a 107-year-old vintage Eugene Berninghaus barber’s chair, to be specific. I had been parting my hair to the side, so Graham recommended I go with the hard part, a Don Draper throwback where the barber uses the straight razor to accentuate the part.
“I like things very crisp, with sharp lines,” says Graham, when asked about his taste in hairstyles. “Nothing against Pittsburgh, but in general, it’s never, like, on the forefront of style. It’s always like a couple years behind. So I kind of feel like I have an eye for what’s popular. It’s not that I’m doing anything crazy unique, I’m just trying to keep Pittsburgh up-to-date on what’s happening in other cities.”
When I got home later that afternoon, my girlfriend of five years informed me that it was the first time she had ever seen me with “an actual hairstyle.”
The South Side Barber Shop
The following week, I traveled to the South Side Barber Shop in the heart of busy East Carson Street where they deal almost exclusively in walk-ins.
“This is where the people are,” deadpans John Caputo (JC), owner of the shop. “It’s perfect for us. We get a lot of guys from Duquesne, Pitt and Carnegie Mellon—all the colleges around here.” He lists them: the football team, the basketball team, their coaches–even some Steelers.
“The baseball team,” chimes in one customer. He’s a Pitt baseball player.
Open since 2012, the shop has walls full of Pittsburgh sports memorabilia and last year was featured in an MLB commercial about Andrew McCutchen.
With four chairs lined up in a row and different barbers on different days, the South Side Barber Shop offers the straight razor shave, but they primarily traffic in cuts.
When one of the barbers, Che, hears me mention the hard part I received at Graham’s, he recommends the Scumbag. “It’s still like the side part,” he says, “there’s just a little more hair around the crown.”
Almost all of the barbers at South Side have their own Instagram feed where they post photos of their work. In fact, all of the barbers I met with post their cuts online, be it Facebook, Instagram, Yelp or their shop’s website.
“It’s really started to pick up the barber community,” says JC. “Everyone’s checking out the newest designs and fads. It keeps everything fresh. So if you’re on Instagram, you can keep up with a lot of the current styles.”
Despite the occasional female client, all the barbers I spoke with talked about their shop as a sanctuary or oasis for men. A place to relax, be pampered, or simply BS with other guys. While I was at South Side, the topics of conversation flowed from ESPN (which we agreed was asinine), to Johnny Manziel (overrated and this was before his start on Sunday), to who has the best Mexican food on the South Side (unresolved), and, of course, to wives and girlfriends (all irreproachable). JC summed it up best:
“It’s where we come to complain, to the barbershop. Complain about our girlfriends, our jobs, our school, our coworkers. Then you hit the door feeling fresh again. You get everything off your chest and off your head.”
Editor’s note: We just got word that The Humble Barber Company just opened on Brighton Rd. by Bradly Richards, who co-founded Johnny Cash Day. Know of more? Let us know in the comments below.