My first barbershop experience was in 2011. I was living in Queens and working in Midtown NYC and looking for a place to get my hair cut when a quick Google search pointed me to an obscure little three-chair shop in the basement of a jewelry store in the Diamond District.
It took me a couple of tries to find it, since getting there involved dodging the diamond peddlers on 47th Street (A chorus of "You buying? You selling?" coming at you from every angle) ducking into an unmarked facade and passing through a dark lobby to a staircase that led down to a showroom filled with the unseen mechanics of the New York City jewelry industry. In the back corner was the shop, where three Jewish men chatted in indiscernible Yiddish and your options included "short," "medium," and "long."
I chose medium, a man whose name I never caught went to work with a trimmer and shears and afterward he finished me off with a quick shoulder and neck massage.
And just like that, I was hooked.
During my life in Utah I've typically gotten my hair cut by my sister Katie – a trained cosmetologist who does great work and operates a salon out of her house in North Ogden – and that was true when I first moved back to the state. But with me in Salt Lake City, it became increasingly difficult schedule-wise to drive an hour for a haircut so I found myself, once again, looking for the right place for my routine trims.
I knew Ray's was the place as soon as I saw it. Located a block South of the City Creek Center on Main Street, Ray's is a mecca of masculinity, located in a long, narrow space filled with old wooden barber's chairs, a shoe shine station and a staff of well-coiffed men (and two women) in sharp vests.
I've been getting my hair cut at Ray's for the past several months but since my first visit I was curious about getting a Classic Barbershop Shave. In my younger years I always insisted on a razor and cream, scoffing at the very idea of electric trimmers. But there's one problem: I have extremely sensitive skin and literally cannot shave without cutting myself. Combine that with men's styles (including my own) trending toward scruff and the result was last year when for my birthday I invested in a nice beard trimmer and gave up razors for good.
But I'm not a trained professional. And my 10-pack of disposable razors obviously can't hold a candle to a straight razor and strap. So I decided to Treat Myself to the full shave experience, and I invited my buddy Adam to come along.
We got to Ray's at around 2:30 on a Saturday and had about a 30 minute wait so we hopped across the street to Eva's Bakery for some pastry (you are able to schedule appointments, but we weren't in a big rush). When our turns came up Adam was helped by Zach, who's done my hair before, and I got Robert, one of the last remaining "original" Ray's Barbershop barbers.
Robert told me he has been barbering for 16 years and moved out to Utah to attend barber school when he was 13 years old. I wanted to ask him more about this, but there was a very sharp metal blade scraping at the skin above one of the major veins in my body, so I kept the chatter to a minimum.
Robert asked about my skin sensitivity and, sure enough, a pesky skin tag on my chin got nicked pretty much at the word "go." He told me that in all likelihood the razor would take it clean off, which was fine by me, but he was able to work around it and used an intoxicatingly aromatic combination of sprays, creams and aftershaves to make sure my skin didn't freak out.
Oh, and did I mention the steamed towels? Yeah, that was money.
There was a part of me that thought the process of being shaved by another man would be awkward (a reaction that likely stems from my experience being prepped for hernia surgery in 2005, an experience I would love to never have to repeat again) but in actuality the inter-personal experience of a barbershop isn't much different than a haircut, with the added bonus of the aforementioned creams, sprays and towels.
Clean shaven, Adam and I head around the corner to Siegfried's Delicatessen to do our interview over a plate of Wienerschnitzel and potatoes.
Wood's Stock: Who are you and what do you do?
Adam Blair: My name is Adam Blair, I am a lab assistant at the University of Utah studying psychology.
WS: What’s the end goal?
AB: The end goal is not to work in psychology. It’s my B.A., I’m also doing prerequisites for P.A. school – physicians assistant school. I would like to be one of those and work in medicine.
WS: Have you ever had a barbershop shave before?
AB: That was my first time
WS: What did you think?
AB: I thought it was really relaxing for the most part. There were a few moments when I realized a man had a straight razor to my neck and that was a little unsettling.
WS: My guy kept asking me questions at times when there was a razor perched over my jugular. Were there times when you didn’t feel it was appropriate for you to be speaking?
AB: Oh absolutely. There was one time when he asked me "Are you all right?" I thought, "um, I don’t really know how to answer this."
WS: So tell me about what your barbershop shave entailed that you might not get form your own bathroom experience.
AB: They sit you down in a chair like normal when you go to a barber. But they kick the chair back so you’re in a nice, comfortable reclined position.
WS: Like super-reclined though.
AB: Yeah, it’s almost like you’re laying on a bed. Your head might actually be sitting below your chest somehow. But you’re very reclined and then they massage your face with a bunch of salves and odd things. They put a nice hot towel on your face, which is just … that was probably the most relaxing part I would say. At that moment I felt safe. That was when I realized this wasn’t Sweeney Todd.
WS: I would agree about the hot towel. Awesome. When they put it on my face I thought "I could do this, I could heat up a towell" and yet there’s something different about it.
AB: It’s like cooking your own food. Going out to eat, it always tastes better because you don’t have to put in that effort. It’s just very relaxing. The conversation was kind of minimal throughout most of the shave. I got to know my guy Zach a little bit, seemed like a very nice man from Englewood. But it was odd to have a guy kind of pawing my face, honestly. This is kind of a bizarre thing. But then I thought how my grandfather used to do this so maybe its just a lost art.
WS: Are you a man who is typically averse to touch?
AB: Not usually. I actually tend to enjoy touch but he’s not my regular barber. He’s just this guy, rubbing my face.
WS: Do you have a regular barber or are you a supercuts man?
AB: I go to the Ray’s (Barbershop) up in Foothill. My barber’s name is Colton.
WS: Will Colton feel betrayed?
AB: He must never know.
WS: So you’re a barbershop-goer?
AB: Recently though, within the last year. I think it’s kind of the time right now. There’s something inherently masculine about going to a barbershop versus going to a salon. You’re going to get a different haircut and it’s going to be different service all around. They’re not going to thin your hair out with some funky, weird scissors or anything, but it’s more of an experience where there’s more of a trust involved instead of a constant ‘how’s this?’
WS: Now, you typically wear a beard?
AB: I do. A beard or sideburns.
WS: Are you a razor shaver or a trimmer shaver? What is your process?
AB: If I’m going to shave I usually just use the beard trimmer on an electric razor because I rarely shave all the way.
WS: How many times a week?
AB: Maybe once. Depends on what’s going on.
WS: Whether you have a hot date?
AB: Whether I have a hot date. Whether I want to see how a date will react to a scrappy beard. I feel like you look nicer with a clean shaven face.
WS: Really? I feel like I look four years younger with a clean-shaven face.
AB: Right? Who doesn’t want that?
WS: I don’t want that. Any last thoughts?
AB: I think it was interesting. He said there’s always nicks in shaving, that’s what my barber said. I got two nicks today and he said "Don’t worry, you won’t even see them by tomorrow." It’s all right, there wasn’t any freaking out, it was just a very calm thing.
WS: That sounds like a life metaphor.
AB: Yeah, I’m trying to make one. There’s always nicks in shaving, figure that one out for yourself.
WS: Anything you need to promote?
AB: Nothing I need to promote. Sundance is coming, I’m pretty excited for that.
WS: Are you on twitter?
AB: I am. I think it’s @AdamBlair. Check me out, I upload instagram pictures and sometimes tweet about the Jazz.
Should you be so inclined to Treat Yo' Self:
Ray's Barbershop has two locations in Salt Lake City, at 154 S. Main Street and 1328 S. 2100 E, and a new location in Ogden at 2435 Kiesel Ave. They are a full-service barbershop and a Classic Shave costs $40.
If you don't live in Salt Lake City or Ogden, Google "Barbershop" and call ahead to see what services they provide. I would recommend not trying to give yourself a straight razor shave without some modicum of training and/or practice.
Siegfried's Delicatessen is located at 20 W. 200 S. in Salt Lake City. They're open for lunch every day and dinner on the weekends (closed Sunday).