Hair to Stay: The Local Barbershop

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CUMBERLAND COUNTY, NJ — Many old-fashioned mom-and-pop establishments and well-known retail chain stores have slowly faded from the public’s mind like a distant memory. But even with so many small businesses losing customers to the modern superstores, there’s one type of business that continues to flourish against the odds: The local barbershop. 

It’s an historical fact that human beings have been getting haircuts for thousands of years. Some of the earliest tools for cutting hair have been uncovered in numerous archaeological excavations in Africa, dating back to 5000 B.C. 

In recent years, there’s been a steady uptick in nationwide chain barbershops and salons that have the financial flexibility to place advertisements in print, on TV, radio and the internet, while regularly enticing potential customers with “discount” prices and coupons in the mail. 

Still, the chain haircut shops haven’t been able to stifle the progress of the many neighborhood barbershops that are prospering in communities across the country, including throughout southern New Jersey. 

In Cumberland County, many customers choose to spend their time and money at smaller, locally owned barbershops rather than at the chain hair salons. This is because, according to many customers we interviewed for this story, they feel they’ll leave not only more satisfied with their fresh new cut, but also intellectually stimulated by the conversations that are commonplace within the friendly confines of the local barbershop. 

“When customers leave here they leave with knowledge and satisfaction,” said Danny Bermudez, owner of the baseball–themed The Dugout Barbershop, in Vineland. 

We’re counselors as well—especially to the youth.

“It’s a rare occurrence that anyone leaves here mad. We treat everyone like family, like we’ve known them for years.”

As you enter one of these barbershops you’re liable to find yourself immediately ensnared in the middle of a deep discussion developing between several boisterous barbershop pundits, spanning a wide range of topics.

On a recent trip to local barbershops, conversations including everything from Kyrie Irving’s decision to ask for a trade away from LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, to the processes one must go through before they can start their own trucking business; and debates on why writers and publishers of elementary and high school history books constantly leave out the truth regarding the prodigious African presence on American soil thousands of years before Columbus’ arrival.

“Barbershops are excellent places for people to come socialize with different members of the community,” said Tahir Bey, master barber at the Lay Up Barbershop and Salon in Vineland. Bey has worked there for 15 years.

“They also get the unique opportunity to continually receive positive information here,” he said.

Many people enjoy the swirl of energy that inevitably encircles them when they’re in one of these privately owned shops, as opposed to the staid and formal type of atmosphere a big chain shop offers.

“I used to go to a big chain barbershop,” said Charles Warren III, who was lounging at the Integrity Barbershop on High Street in Millville, “and the vibe was more quiet. It felt like I was in a library.”

“I don’t just cut hair,” said Bermudez, when explaining what goes on at The Dugout. “I sing, dance and do a comedy show. You get your money’s worth when you come here.”

Integrity owner Jess Rivera works on a client at his Millville barbershop. Photo: Jeff Schwachter

Jesse Rivera, owner of Integrity, has run his business a little more than two years, and is already in the process of expanding his shop, thanks to a steady increase in loyal clientele.

According to Rivera, one of the reasons he’s been successful is because he provides a peaceful, professional environment for his customers and goes out of his way to treat them with the utmost respect.

“I’ve gone through a lot of struggles in my life,” Rivera revealed. “And through it all I maintained my integrity.” (Which is how he came up with the name for his shop.) “Integrity is doing the right thing when no one’s looking, and here we do the right thing for our customers.” He also has an idea about why customers come to his shop.

“We customize the hair service to each individual and make them feel like they’re a part of something, instead of just treating them like a number,” said Rivera.

As with most local barbershops, Integrity’s staff dedicates a significant amount of time trimming beards, shaving faces (and in some cases, eyebrows), and touch ups.  

There’s a special bond that exists between a barber and his client. Customers feel comfortable enough to express their innermost thoughts and feelings, which they may not share with their family, significant others, or close friends.

There’s a saying in [the barber profession], according to Bey: “There are only two people you can trust — your barber and God.”

“We’re not only barbers,” said Bermudez. “We’re counselors as well—especially to the youth.”

Interestingly, before the age of the modern barber, cutting hair wouldn’t be the only description you would discover on a barber’s resume. According to sciencemuseum.org, barbers in medieval Europe were known as “barber-surgeons” and their duties, besides cutting hair, included “extracting teeth, performing enemas, selling medicines, performing surgery and bloodletting.”

“The practice of bloodletting began around 3,000 years ago with the Egyptians,” according to the British Columbia Medical Journal, and “is the surgical removal of some of a patient’s blood for [therapeutic] purposes,” as defined by oxforddictionaries.com.

The prominent red, white and blue barber pole seen outside of countless barbershops is the symbolic representation of a bygone era when barbers were masters at the practice of bloodletting.

According to history.com, “The look of the barber pole is linked to bloodletting with red representing blood and white representing the bandages used to stem the bleeding.”

Blue can either stand for the vein, or as a nod to the American Flag, depending on whom you ask.

This is an indication that the barber/client relationship has always gone much deeper than it may appear on the surface. Customers have always put their trust, their heads and sometimes even their lives in a barber’s hands.

“Letting a barber touch you physically allows people to let their guard down,” said Anthony Patterson, who has been a salon manager for seven years and is currently in the process of purchasing the Lay Up.

The Lay Up on Landis Avenue in Vineland. L to R: Tahir Bey, Edison Brooks, and ‘Jay the Barber’ with their clients. Photo: Thomas Moody

“This adds an emotional [connection] between the barber and the client.”

Each barber we spoke with expressed a multitude of reasons on why the small-business barbershop has been able to thrive amongst the proliferation of chains backed by large corporations.

Bey proclaimed that he and his fellow barbers are committed to mastering their craft.

“Some places give super cuts, but we give superior cuts,” said Bey.

One customer, who had just gotten a haircut from the Lay Up’s “Jay the Barber” agreed.

“I went to a [chain barbershop] and asked for a ‘low fade,’ but ended up with mohawk,” said firefighter Nelson Echevarria, of the Burlington Fire Department in Burlington, KY, who was visiting family in the area.

“I like going to neighborhood barbershops because they do a phenomenal job and know how to give an original haircut.”

Although some customers said that the chain establishments are sometimes “more convenient” and “quicker”—especially when shopping at a mall or a plaza, most agreed that at the chains you never know who’ll be cutting your hair.

“The turnover is drastic at the chains,” added Warren. “One week you’ll see a certain barber there, and the next week that person no longer works there.”

Among the barbers and local barbershop owners interviewed, there were common themes that they all touched upon with unbridled enthusiasm as to keys to their success.

These included providing customers with a comfortable and clean environment, allowing them the freedom to speak their minds while in the chair, and treating them like family.

Oh, and lest we forget, taking pride in giving really good haircuts and ensuring the customer not only leaves happy, but returns. 


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