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Cover Story

Barbershops & the art of men

7/15/2015

Things change — hopefully for the better. Women can vote. Gay marriage is found constitutional. Jim Crow laws are prohibited.

And so it was in 1974 that the Iowa Supreme Court faced a hairy problem. Long hair was the style, and some men felt the barbers were not keeping pace. So, they went where cutting long hair was the norm — to cosmetologists.

That was a mistake.

In 1974 it was illegal for a cosmetologist to cut a man’s hair. The cosmetologists, just like the barbers, were licensed and governed by a state board, but the law prohibited cosmetologists from “barbering” any male over a certain age. A “licensed cosmetologist may cut the hair of any female person and any male person under 12 years of age,” said the Iowa Code. So much for dad getting a cut at the neighborhood hair salon.

This distinction was attacked in court as unconstitutional, particularly in light of the nearly identical training to be had by the two different professions when it came to cutting hair. In 1974, the Iowa Supreme Court was not the Court of today and was probably still getting its sideburns trimmed at the barbershop (except for Justice Mark McCormick, who had short hair and disagreed with the majority and thought the law was unconstitutional). The majority of the Court found that the ban on allowing a cosmetologist to cut men’s hair made sense. This was changed by the legislature in 1992. Now cosmetologists can cut men’s hair.

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Shave and a haircut — two bits

The old shout out, “shave and a haircut,” with the infamous response, “two bits,” is a comic ending to more than a few old songs and TV shows and even a musical. A shave and a haircut for a quarter? Today, that’s not enough to get you a thimble-sized latte. Times have changed, though. If a customer paid two bits for a haircut in Des Moines in 1936, the barber could be thrown in jail.

Back then, things were tough in Des Moines. In between world wars and the Depression, hard times were all around. There was concern about how difficult it was to make a living, and price cutting in all the service professions was not helping the situation. So the Iowa Legislature gave the City of Des Moines the power to do something about it. Des Moines decided to issue an ordinance that set out the minimum amount a person could charge for barbering. That way, one barber could not undercut another. Des Moines Ordinance 4278 read:

The following are the minimum prices, which may be charged for the rendering of the barber services hereinafter named, either singly or in combination, when such services have been rendered by a practitioner of barbering licensed in this state:

Hair Cut — Forty Cents (40¢)

Shave — Twenty-Five Cents (25¢)

Shampoo — Thirty-Five Cents (35¢)

Facial Massage — Thirty-Five Cents (35¢)

Tonic — Twenty-Five Cents (25¢)

Singe — Twenty-Five Cents (25¢)

Facial Steam — Twenty-Five Cents (25¢)

The Iowa Supreme Court, in Duncan v. City of Des Moines, was asked to weigh in on the ability of the government to set prices. Appreciating the dilemma the legislature was trying to address, the Court found that people cannot be deprived the right to acquire, possess or protect property, under either the U.S. or Iowa constitutions. In other words, the government can’t set a minimum charge for barbering. The law was struck down.

Free enterprise won, and barbershops continued to hold their unofficial status as the place where men loved to gather. The men’s club. And while shop numbers have decreased over the years, those special places where one can sit in “the chair,” shoot the breeze, get a trim and some advice at the same time, still exist right here in Des Moines.

 

Imperial Kuttz, 1537 Sixth Ave.

The two little boys sit in the chairs watching, wary, not saying a peep. Both are raised up high on child boards placed on a barber’s chair with a hand firmly planted on their heads. The whirring sound of the razor near the ear is not yet a comforting noise to them. It’s new. It’s different. And you only have two ears. Fortunately, mom is sitting in the chair of the third barber.

The barber shop and its clients — young and old — are like a family, says Kevin Turner of Imperial Kuttz.

The barber shop and its clients — young and old — are like a family, says Kevin Turner of Imperial Kuttz.

Then the men begin to gather. The banter from the barbers and the customers becomes a steady, easy hum. Men saunter in, pick up magazines and settle down. Whether it’s an hour or for the afternoon, everyone is made welcome. Everyone belongs. The little boys begin to smile.

“The barber shop is a family,” says barber Kevin Turner. “This is where men gather.”

 

Skywalk Barbering, 400 Walnut St.

“One of the first chapters in barbering school is about the barber pole. The first thing you learn is the red on the pole represents blood, because the barber back in the day was a surgeon, among other things,” young barber Paul Huber says with a can-you-believe-it voice as he shaves the man in his chair who appears to have only heard the words “barber” and “blood” as Huber scrapes with the straight razor.

From left, barbers Paul Huber, owner Jacob Minkel and Dewey Lauridsen at Skywalk Barbering.

From left, barbers Paul Huber, owner Jacob Minkel and Dewey Lauridsen at Skywalk Barbering.

On the other side of the room is barber Dewey Lauridsen.

“Teeth, blood and veins,” Lauridsen adds with a laugh. “The white, red and blue of the barber pole, that is the first thing we learned. When barbers go to school, they still have to take full anatomy classes. Barbers were surgeons, dentists, bleeders and also cut hair back in medieval days.”

Jacob Minkel, owner/barber of Downtown Skywalk Barbering where Lauridsen and Huber are cutting hair on either side of him, listens and laughs. Then he works. And then he works some more. It’s the barber’s way. It’s no surprise he has been the barber for Neil Smith and cut Gov. Robert Ray’s hair for years. Lauridsen and Huber sing Minkel’s praises and pledge loyalty forever.

A men’s club indeed.

Minkel laughingly explains that the day of Playboy magazines being handed out to customers has long passed, however.

“Now, people just look at their phones for that,” he says.

“The barbershop is absolutely a men’s club,” Lauridsen adds. “Topic of conversation? You name it; it’s wide open. I’m the king of wit in here. There’s no-holds-barred. If a lady is present, we are on our best behavior. Otherwise, ladies walking by may be talked about. We can’t help it. My boyfriend has, many times, been jealous of my job. He says, ‘You go have fun.’ I tell him, when the box of jobs came around in high school, he chose a computer in a cubicle. I chose to cut hair. I picked wisely.”

All three barbers are focused on maintaining the old traditions of the barbershop, keeping the solidarity of the men’s club.

“Listen, I can do anything,” Huber says. “I attract hipsters. I do a side part. I do a lot of fading and blending. But shaving the neck with a straight razor is a classic. I wanted to come to a shop that is an old school shop. This is. And I’m part of trying to keep it alive.”

 

Franklin Plaza Barber Shop, 4942 Franklin Ave.

The chairs are full. A crowd is waiting on the sides. People are sitting out front. Is this a barbershop or a house party? Looks like more of the latter.

Franklin Plaza Barber Shop frequently has a line of people waiting to get their hair cut.

Franklin Plaza Barber Shop frequently has a line of people waiting to get their hair cut.

Barber Chuck Lines is clear about what’s going on.

“Were not trying to feed anybody a line of shit,” he says. “This shop is what it is. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea. You can’t please everyone. When you try, you end up losing a lot more. We usually have a two- to three-hour wait. We keep trying to drag the business into the ground, but without success.”

This brash style of in-your-face barbering is a great success. Say what’s on your mind, be honest, and then see what happens.

“I’m barbering because I’m not very good working with other people,” Lines says. “I have too much of a tendency to tell people exactly what I think.”

It’s obvious this mentality has created the very men’s club that barber shops are famous for.

“The services we’re providing are right on par with what guys are looking for now,” he says. “They’re getting it in a place where they can feel comfortable. The filters come off. When the place is packed and the camaraderie gets rolling, it’s not always child-friendly. But I’ll tell you what, it happens more often than not that the mom just goes and waits out in the car and says, ‘My son is learning something today.’ You know what I mean.”

Platinum South Barber & Beauty Salon, 2705 S.W. Ninth St.

Cutting hair is an art form, according to Dustin Leuang of Platinum South Barber and Beauty.

Cutting hair is an art form, according to Dustin Leuang of Platinum South Barber and Beauty.

Dustin Leuang is all about you and the art that is just about to occur. The rest of the shop may click and clutter, but silence reigns over Dustin and the person in the chair.

“I go to hair shows all over. I’ve been to Miami, Chicago, Omaha, Davenport. Those are my trophies over there. I do all types of things like that. I do cartoon characters. Occasionally I’ll do face portraits. Otherwise, I do basic haircuts, traditional straight razor shaves. I do everything.

“I like to make people feel good, whether it’s a compliment, a handshake, a gesture, anything like that.  If I can increase anybody’s self-esteem or confidence, I’d like to do that. Make somebody’s day better. And that’s what I do. I give somebody the mirror at the end of the haircut, and if they give me a smile, I know I did my job.”

 

Hilltop Barber Shop, 1902 E. 29th St.

But what about a woman barber?  Can she belong to a men’s club?

“I have been at Hilltop Barber Shop for just over 13 years. My first week, my lovely East siders…” Tammy Ortiz’s sentence trails off and she gives a long sigh and a shake of her head. “I’m a born-and-raised East sider, and so I can flip it just as much as they can. But my first week, my guys walked in and groaned. I said, ‘Yes, I’m here to stay.’ They sat in the chair. I won them over with my lovely chair disposition.”

Tammy Ortiz has been at Hilltop Barber Shop for 13 years.

Tammy Ortiz has been at Hilltop Barber Shop for 13 years.

Ortiz is sassy, quick-witted and will knock you into shape. She might be that parent you never had.

“Like I said, I can flip it just as easy as they can,” she says. “I like that I can be myself here. I can say ‘quit twitching’ without the customer getting mad.”

Ortiz takes care of everyone. She orders a customer to get in the chair and then tells him to get out and go home when she’s done. She will even usher customers into the grave.

“I have a lot of senior citizens that come in and get their haircuts. I had a gentleman come in named Joe Hull who passed away just last year, right before Christmas. They asked me to cut his hair after he passed on. So I did. I was honored by that. I’d been doing his hair for so long, it was the right thing to do.”

 

Barber Stylists Uptown, 1131 42nd St.

Barber Sam Reese, at 75 years old, will be the first to admit his life is a mess. “Don’t listen to me,” he’ll say, or “Go to another barber.” But they don’t. Why? Because Reese has been a barber for 57 years, and he drops pearls of wisdom to all who enter his shop. To visit Reese is to go to a men’s club where they’ve hired a speaker.

Sam Reese has been a barber for 57 years and currently works at Barber Stylists Uptown.

Sam Reese has been a barber for 57 years and currently works at Barber Stylists Uptown.

“I know some barbers who are nice,” he says. “But not that many, to be quite honest.

“When I barber, I just barber. I don’t give you a beer or a massage. It’s like you’re getting a divorce and the lawyer offers to do both a bankruptcy and the divorce at the same time. Come on. I just cut your hair.”

One-liners come quickly and with the sense that Reese has nothing to lose. Anything might come out of his mouth. It’s thrillingly scary to wait for his next pronouncement.

“When I retire, I’ll probably go to work for Trader Joe’s, because I like that store. And, you know, I have enough personal skills I could get hired out there. In fact, everybody out there ought to be my age. We go to work. We don’t get sick — we just die. If he didn’t show up, well, he’s dead.”

This honesty is unnerving.

“I had prostate cancer. If you want to find out the measure of the man, take away his ability to have an erection, then you’ll find out what he’s about,” Reese says candidly. “Unfortunately, it’s a struggle. My entire life was an erection. I’d mow the yard and think about getting laid. But then when you can’t use that as your motivator, you have to find someone who wants to hold hands in the park.”

Brutal honesty. Snip, snip, snip. The haircut continues.

“There is really only one attribute you’re looking for in a woman. It’s not tits, and it’s not ass, and it’s not her face. It’s that she likes you for you. And then you can look for something else you like about her. If you don’t have that one, you have nothing.”

And then the brotherhood ends for the week. The cut is over; it’s time for Reese to go home.

 

A gathering of men

Barbershops are a chance to sit and talk and listen without a filter, a chance to belong to a male community, and a chance to let one’s guard down, the belly sag and your true self shine. It’s not a bad deal for a shave and a haircut.

But it’s about more than just getting the sides trimmed and a little off the top.

“Have a seat in the chair,” says the barber. “Did I tell you the one about the lawyer and the pope?”

And the waiting men shuffle their newspapers, cross their legs and wait to tell their own jokes.

A gathering of men in a barbershop. CV

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